Today’s July Fourth holiday is a reminder that as Americans, we’re all children of summer — heirs to a nation that was born in the hottest season of the year.
Or so historian Joseph J. Ellis points out in his new bestseller, “Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence.”
David McCullough, another bestselling author of history books and biographies, has often said that history is interesting because things didn’t have to turn out the way that they did; they might have gone the other way. McCullough suggested as much in “1776,” his own account of the battle for American independence. Ellis, writing very much in the McCullough tradition, stresses in his new book just how dicey things were in the summer of 1776, when a motley assortment of American rebels faced down the British empire, home of “the most powerful and efficient machine for waging war in the world.”
That meant very long odds for the cause of American independence, but as Ellis reminds readers, a pattern of good luck helped the Yanks prevail. George Washington, who wasn’t very religious, would later credit the “singular interpositions of Providence” for his new country’s ultimate victory over the British.
But Ellis makes the point that in the summer of 1776, there was nothing clearly known as the United States of America. The revolution was fought by a loose assortment of colonies that answered to largely local concerns, not some grand national aspiration.
America’s sense of nationhood would emerge more slowly. That political experiment continues more than two centuries later — an enterprise that, like all forms of representative government, remains a work in progress.
Today, we honor the work started in the summer of 1776. Extending that legacy will require much of us, and future generations, too.
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