Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Ellis (First Family: Abigail and John Adams, 2010, etc.) writes book after book on the American Revolutionary period. Practice makes perfect.
The author’s latest alternates between 1776 colonial politics during which the Continental Congress, dominated by John Adams, finally put aside efforts at compromise and opted for independence and the fighting where George Washington’s army marched from triumph in the siege of Boston to catastrophe in New York. Ellis delivers few surprises and no cheerleading but much astute commentary. He points out with no small irony that the Continental Congress was at its best in 1776 when thoughtful men debated the benefits of liberty versus the consequences of war with the world’s most powerful nation and came to the right decision. Only in the following years, faced with governing the colonies and supplying the army, did it reveal its incompetence. When British forces withdrew from Boston in March, colonial rebels declared a great victory, but Washington worried. Sieges and fighting behind fortifications (i.e., Bunker Hill) were simple compared with standard 18th-century warfare, which required soldiers to maneuver under fire and remain calm amid scenes of horrific carnage. He suspected that his largely untrained militia army would do badly under these circumstances, and events in New York proved him right. Luckily, British Gen. William Howe, despite vastly superior forces, refused to deliver a knockout blow. He would never get another chance.
Kevin Phillips’ 2012 tour de force, 1775, delivered a massive argument for that year as the key to American independence. A traditionalist, Ellis sticks to 1776 and writes an insightful history of its critical, if often painful, events.