Review of The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, by Joseph J. Ellis

20 Sep

Master historian and retired professor Joseph J. Ellis has a long list of award-winning publications focusing on America’s founding era and its leading figures to his credit. In books ranging from American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson to Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Ellis has established himself as one of the country’s foremost experts on the Revolutionary period. His latest book, The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773-1783, attempts to help us understand the complicated foundations of the American nationalism which gave rise to a unique national identity and propelled the country to victory in an all-consuming war and still serves as the disputed basis of the notion of American exceptionalism.

I listened to an audiobook version of the title recently, and found it, as expected, to be an engrossing and well-argued take on a familiar story. In summary, more than half of Ellis’s book is a fast-moving and high-level account of how opposition to British policies in America became an organizing force which did nothing less than provide a basis for a new sense of nationhood among North America’s rebellious British colonies. Showcasing political thought among high profile leaders and a variety of lesser-known individuals from a range of social classes, he shows that opinion over what the proper responses might be varied considerably. Ellis demonstrates, however, that a movement within the otherwise loosely-connected colonies gradually took shape and encouraged a coalescing of resistance to Great Britain. That resistance, as we know, enabled a remarkable attempt to found a new nation and sustained a fragile political entity through a long and bitter war. There is really not all that much new in the book upon reflection in these regards, but Ellis’s incredible comprehensive knowledge of the story and its key leaders enables a new understanding of a familiar story through his expert storytelling and revealing personal profiles of central characters.

But in the larger picture, “The Cause,” as Ellis explains so convincingly, is nothing less than the way Americans understood what their struggle for nationhood was all about. How and why its most noble goals came to resonate as something much more than simple resistance to taxation without representation and what all this meant for the future of the new nation and its place in the world is a story still being written. Ellis does not offer definitive thoughts on all of this postscript, but shows that victory in the Revolutionary War was not necessarily foreordained and the stability of the nation in the decades after independence was anything but assured. Belief in a vaguely-defined cause somehow guided developments in the war and indeed after its conclusion. Ellis is at his best in demonstrating how local, tangible, concerns meshed into a larger, somewhat ephemeral, set of values which have become fundamental to understanding America’s past, present, and future. In short, The Cause is a compelling attempt to frame America’s story for a new generation by a mature historian with a lifetime of experience in the craft. It is definitely worth a look by anyone interested in the Revolutionary era and America’s founding principles.

JMB

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