Review: The Cause: The American Revolution and Its Discontents, 1773–1783


October 25, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783 by Joseph J. Ellis (New York, NY: Liveright Publishing, 2021)

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis’s examines the evolving meaning of the American Revolution in his newest work, The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents. The events that history refers to as the Revolution was simply called the “Glorious Cause” by the people who were living through them. They did not see it as a rebellion (although the British did) or a fight for independence. It was an effort for the British colonists to stand up for certain ideals, but these ideals changed constantly because of the people and circumstances of the war. Certain individuals who Ellis believes had more of an influence on the meaning of The Cause than others are part of the story: George Washington, John Dickinson, John Jay, Nathanael Greene, and Robert Morris.

The book is a familiar narrative of the Revolution, focusing on the Imperial Crisis through the Treaty of Paris of 1783. The first section of the book, Part I: Origins and Arguments, 1773-1776, explores the events leading to the war up to the Declaration of Independence. The tensions between the colonies and Great Britain were concerned with the supreme power of Parliament and not the debt caused by the French and Indian War. King George III then took the Boston Tea Party as a personal affront and pushed his supporters in Parliament to thoroughly punish Boston. The resulting Coercive Acts united the colonies against the strong-armed tactics of Parliament. When Lexington and Concord finally happened (it was inevitable), Great Britain made the mistake of sending the Howe brothers to lead the forces against the rebellious colonists. William Howe, who witnessed the bloodshed at Bunker Hill, refused to allow his troops to go through another such battle. He would not lead his forces in an all-out attack to put down the rebellion, once and for all. The choice of George Washington as commander of the new Continental Army further helped to bring the colonies together.

The second chapter, “Prudence Dictates,” elaborates on the various visions political thinkers had for America: John Dickinson, John Adams, and Thomas Paine. Dickinson pushed for moderation, which Adams believed was a futile effort, while Paine’s Common Sense made The Cause a push for total independence. But it was the actions of George III, according to Adams, that made American independence a reality. His strong-arm tactics made any allegiance to Parliament’s sovereignty impossible. The Cause was defined by the words of the Declaration of Independence, which became the ideal of the American dream.

Part II: Arms and men, 1776-1780, starts with Washington’s efforts to make a professional army out of the New England militias. The British American Secretary, George Germain, arranged for a massive invasion force to take New York City while the Congress was debating and voting on independence. Washington’s small, inexperienced army could not stop the British, but he brilliantly escaped to Manhattan and then White Plains. Luckily for Washington, Howe was still reluctant to make an all-out assault on the Americans. Chapter 4, “The Few,” demonstrated how Washington’s army became a national force during the horrid winter at Valley Forge (the chapter begins with Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers” speech from Henry V). The incompetence of Congress to provide for the Continental Army made Washington the embodiment of The Cause, who saw the need for a strong central government. A fully empowered nation was a fulfillment of the American Revolution, but this went against the hopes of some in Congress (“True Whigs”) who advocated a weak confederation government.

The final section of The Cause, Part III: Triumphs and Tragedies, 1780-1783, made the French role in American independence clear. The war could have ended after Saratoga, when the French decided to go to war against the British as an American ally, but George III and George Germain insisted on protracting the hostilities. Germain believed, correctly, that the longer the war continued, the more The Cause would be afflicted by the weak American government’s political and economic paralysis. Ellis clearly shows that the push of some to support the weak government would at some point destroy the American efforts: “It was the ultimate irony: a doctrinaire insistence on a principled commitment to the core values of The Cause rendered the triumph of The Cause itself problematic” (p. 211). Meanwhile, Washington continued to obsess about retaking New York City. The French clearly understood that the war was to be fought in the South and made sure that its navy was available outside the Chesapeake region by the fall of 1781. Lord Charles Cornwallis ended up being trapped in Yorktown, where he surrendered in October. Although the major fighting was over, Washington now had to fight Congress to keep it from disbanding the Continental Army. In the last chapter, “The Exit,” John Jay helped to negotiate the Treaty of Paris, making the addition of western territory a new element of The Cause. Washington became the true republican hero by resigning his commission, but not before dealing with what has become known as the Newburgh Conspiracy, which he firmly believed went against The Cause.

The concluding chapter examines the legacies of The Cause. First, Ellis asks the question of who really lost America. Who became the scapegoat? George Germain and George III seem to most worthy of blame, as Ellis points out constantly through the book. When it comes to the legacy of The Cause, however, any positive ideals that could have been garnered from the fight for independence have been negated by two situations that each defied the core principles of The Cause: slavery and Native American dispossession. When it came to slavery, the promoters of The Cause (Jefferson, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Jay) knew that the institution of slavery was incompatible with what the Americans were fighting for. Slavery nonetheless became a topic that was pushed aside to keep the states united in the war. Concerning the Native Americans, the same promoters never saw the native peoples as ever being included in The Cause. They were in the way of what they believed to be the fulfillment of the Revolution.

The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents is a narrative that is familiar to all Revolution scholars, but it truly makes one question what The Cause is all about. It continued to change through the war years, and its meaning is still changing. What makes the book stand out is the inclusion of separate biographical profiles at the end of each chapter. Some of the individuals are well-known, such as Mercy Otis Warren, Joseph Brant, and Joseph Plumb Martin. Ellis writes about other characters who were affected by The Cause or had a hand in it. One was a loyalist (Joshua Loring), two were slaves (Harry Washington and Billy Lee), and another was a woman who was important to the Continental Army (Catharine Littlefield Greene). These profiles give a personal dimension to each chapter, becoming “stories unto themselves,” whose perspectives are important in understanding The Cause. Ellis makes it very clear that the story of The Cause did not involve just white men, but also loyalists, women, soldiers, Native Americans, and slaves.

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  • A solid review of Ellis’ latest book on a timeless topic, with Ellis’ revelations of new details, his focus on overlooked players, key and ordinary, and a well-argued and grounded point of view highlighting the Revolution’s achievements and its continuing vexing questions. Full of fresh insights. Masterful narrative history, hard to put down: a book that’s an excellent read.

  • An amendment to my previous comments on Ellis’ new book. Although the book covers the decade 1773-1783, it is not a continuous or chronological depiction of the major events, battles, people, etc. of the Revolutionary period. Instead, it is very selective in its focus, all designed to highlight the storytelling Ellis uses to illustrate his thematic treatment of the decade. For example, he mentions Washington’s Crossing the Delaware (where he intriguingly compares Washington’s desire to achieve a bold stroke with Doolittle’s air raid on Japan after Pearl Harbor) without covering what happened after the Crossing. The Battle of Trenton is not even included among the battles listed in the index. He certainly has covered many things left out here in his other books, and his selections and omissions surely signal his preference for the period’s most important events and people. But his approach may be off putting for some readers searching for a complete picture of the period chosen. There are major gaps. Ellis believes what we call the American Revolution succeeded precisely because it was not a full revolution, so the book is designed to highlight what the founders most importantly accomplished as well what they deliberately chose not to accomplish.

  • I just finished reading this book last week and I was a little disappointed that it skipped over significant periods of time. I would second the remarks of Mr. Conner and wondered how did the author skip Trenton and Princeton? It seemed like most of 1777 was omitted. It is not an inclusive and authoritative history of the war and is not a suitable work for someone just beginning to study that time period. It requires the reader to have an existing understanding of the general outline of events during the war both in the northern and southern theaters. I feel that Prof. Ellis knew what he wanted to write about and did so knowing that his many other works probably cover the matters omitted herein. I do plan to read it a second time soon and do not mean to be overly critical.

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