Think you’re a firecracker on American history? Bet you didn’t know that…
…George Washington stood nearly 6 foot 3.
…John Adams was all about the girth of a nation; the man weighed in at 200 pounds.
…Thomas Jefferson was a shy and aloof young man, “known to cross his arms over his chest” during the deliberations that led to the Declaration of Independence.
Don’t feel bad — I didn’t know any of that either. At least not until I read a wonderful (and surprisingly speedy) new account of our national origins, Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence by Joseph J. Ellis.
Its biggest surprise?
We’ve been celebrating the wrong Independence Day!
The five-man committee charged with completing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration, Ellis reminds us, submitted it to the full Continental Congress on June 28, 1776 — not July 4 (the date it was signed). So that famous painting by John Trumbull in the United States Capitol Rotunda actually depicts “the glorious 28th,” as we may one day come to acknowledge it.
But what’s a little date fudging among revolutionary friends?
What truly matters here is the insurrectionary spirit that suffused the summer of ’76. Ellis beautifully re-creates it in his compact but compelling book.
The independence-minded politicians of the day had highly developed ideals, but their martial muscle was flabby: unfit, untrained and underfunded. Yet as Ellis deftly shows, Generals Washington and (Nathanael) Greene managed to morph a ragtag militia into a fighting force to be reckoned with.
Among the many enduring mysteries of our revolutionary summer is why British General William Howe and his brother, Admiral Richard Howe, squandered so many golden opportunities to smash the Continental Army.
Time and again, Ellis shows us, the two military professionals failed to make logical moves that might easily have defeated Washington and Greene. That means “the Spirit of ’76” came close to being squelched — regardless of the precise date on which we now celebrate its triumph.
So have a safe and happy Twen — er, Fourth!