The Cause: The American Revolution and its Discontents, 1773-1783 (Hardcover)
New York Times Book Review — Editors’ Choice • Chicago Tribune — "60 Best Reads for Right Now" • St. Louis Post-Dispatch — "50 Fall Books You Should Consider Reading"
A culminating work on the American Founding by one of its leading historians, The Cause rethinks the American Revolution as we have known it.
In one of the most “exciting and engaging” (Gordon S. Wood) histories of the American founding in decades, Pulitzer Prize–winning historian Joseph J. Ellis offers an epic account of the origins and clashing ideologies of America’s revolutionary era, recovering a war more brutal, and more disorienting, than any in our history, save perhaps the Civil War.
For more than two centuries, historians have debated the history of the American Revolution, disputing its roots, its provenance, and above all, its meaning. These questions have intrigued Ellis—one of our most celebrated scholars of American history—throughout his entire career. With this much-anticipated volume, he at last brings the story of the revolution to vivid life, with “surprising relevance” (Susan Dunn) for our modern era. Completing a trilogy of books that began with Founding Brothers, The Cause returns us to the very heart of the American founding, telling the military and political story of the war for independence from the ground up, and from all sides: British and American, loyalist and patriot, white and Black.
Taking us from the end of the Seven Years’ War to 1783, and drawing on a wealth of previously untapped sources, The Cause interweaves action-packed tales of North American military campaigns with parlor-room intrigues back in England, creating a thrilling narrative that brings together a cast of familiar and long-forgotten characters. Here Ellis recovers the stories of Catherine Littlefield Greene, wife of Major General Nathanael Greene, the sister among the “band of brothers”; Thayendanegea, a Mohawk chief known to the colonists as Joseph Brant, who led the Iroquois Confederation against the Patriots; and Harry Washington, the enslaved namesake of George Washington, who escaped Mount Vernon to join the British Army and fight against his former master.
Countering popular histories that romanticize the “Spirit of ’76,” Ellis demonstrates that the rebels fought under the mantle of “The Cause,” a mutable, conveniently ambiguous principle that afforded an umbrella under which different, and often conflicting, convictions and goals could coexist. Neither an American nation nor a viable government existed at the end of the war. In fact, one revolutionary legacy regarded the creation of such a nation, or any robust expression of government power, as the ultimate betrayal of The Cause. This legacy alone rendered any effective response to the twin tragedies of the founding—slavery and the Native American dilemma—problematic at best.
Written with the vivid and muscular prose for which Ellis is known, and with characteristically trenchant insight, The Cause marks the culmination of a lifetime of engagement with the founding era. A landmark work of narrative history, it challenges the story we have long told ourselves about our origins as a people, and as a nation.
About the Author
Joseph J. Ellis is the best-selling author of twelve previous books, including American Sphinx, which won the National Book Award, and Founding Brothers, which won the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, and Plymouth, Vermont.
Masterly.... Underscore[s] that the signers failed to deal with some awfully big problems.... Deftly foreshadows all the issues that would complicate America’s trajectory and ends with a historical cliffhanger: Would the Republic survive? It did, but only when the Constitution became the embodiment of The Cause.... As Ellis points out, the word 'democracy' back then was more suggestive of mob rule than reasoned deliberation.
— Richard Stengel - New York Times Book Review
[A] carefully wrought, highly engaging reality check on the elusive character of the American Revolution... Ellis, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award for previous works, is sensitive to contested vocabularies... [He] knows that words always matter and that the Revolution wasn’t all glorious or miraculous. He regularly reminds us of what it wasn’t.... With its combined examination of tactics and atmospherics, The Cause is a serious (and seriously entertaining) book and a lively addition to the literature. It is told in the breezy manner that fans of the author have come to expect. All in all, it provides a clear and fair-minded assessment of men and women and issues that mattered at a time when everything mattered.
— Andrew Burstein - Washington Post
The Cause comes across as a special gift, the book the author most wanted to write to the reader from the great scholar.
— Robert S. Davis - New York Review of Books
Pulitzer Prize-winning and bestselling historian Joseph J. Ellis superbly captures the issues, personalities and events of the American Revolution... Using rigorous scholarship, Ellis offers vivid portraits of and penetrating insights about this period in history, while challenging our conventional understandings of it... This riveting, highly recommended book by one of America’s major historians will change how you see the American Revolution.
— Roger Bishop, BookPage, starred review
[A] speedy retelling of the nation’s stumbling, fractured founding, through evocative profiles of British loyalists, slaves, Native Americans and soldiers uncertain of what was being founded.
— Christopher Borrelli - Chicago Tribune
The colonists didn’t describe their war for independence as the American Revolution, Pulitzer winner Ellis (American Dialogue) points out in the preface to this richly detailed, multivoiced history. The term they used was “The Cause”—“a conveniently ambiguous label that provided a verbal canopy under which a diverse variety of political and regional persuasions could coexist.” Ellis skillfully charts those divergent interests.... Profiles of lesser-known figures including Continental Army soldier Joseph Plumb Martin and Mohawk chief Joseph Brant add depth and nuance to a familiar story. This expert account highlights the “improvisational” nature of America’s founding.
— Publishers Weekly
With his characteristically graceful prose, Ellis offers a short, straightforward history of a critical decade in the nation’s youth.... [from] a master storyteller known for perceptive detailing. As is always the case with Ellis, he is brilliant at short takes—events, decisions, individuals.... True to his own skills at bringing people alive, Ellis also includes sympathetic mini-profiles of normal, unsung participants in the period’s fraught events: loyalists, women, Native Americans, Joseph Plum Martin (“the Zelig of the American Revolution”), and, perhaps the most captivating, Washington’s personal slave, Billy Lee.... It’s hard to imagine a better-told brief history of the key years of the American Revolution.
— Kirkus Reviews
Ellis’s witty style and astute analysis make this essential reading for historians and enthusiasts at all levels who want to disentangle the complex historiography of the American Revolution.
— Margaret Kappanadze, Library Journal, starred review
Ruing Washington’s postwar hesitance to set an example by freeing his slaves, Ellis underscores the moral failings and deferrals that were then deemed necessary to ensure political unity. In all, a fresh and astute analysis of the American Revolution.
— Gilbert Taylor - Booklist