by David McCullough, ©2005
Simon & Schuster, 294 pp
David McCullough is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of histories and biographies:Truman, John Adams, The Johnstown Flood,” etc. His carefully researched and eminently readable books leave one wondering why American History, taught as a required high school course, ever seemed dull.
Textbooks, of course, are written only to impart facts, whereas McCullough imbues those facts with vivid detail in his descriptions of time, place, character, and circumstance (in the case of 1776, most notably the topography and the weather). Textbooks about the American Revolution must also cover a more than one year, and yet by close examination of that single year, McCullough has pretty much gotten the meat of the whole amazing story.
George Washington is, of course, the central figure of this book, but we are also introduced to a fascinating group of men surrounding him, including his second in command, General Charles Lee, who very much coveted Washington’s position as Commander in Chief. Lee was captured by the British in the fall of ’76, however, rendering him useless in the very critical days at the end of that year.
Two young men on Washington’s staff emerge as brilliant leaders: Nathanael Greene, a most unlikely candidate for generalship because he was a Quaker, and Henry Knox, a bookseller from Connecticut, who conceived of the outlandish and daring plan of hauling the canons captured at Fort Ticonderoga across the mountains to serve in the siege of Boston.
The British high command is also closely examined, most notably the Howe brothers, Admiral Lord Richard Howe and his younger brother, General William Howe. In the first chapter of the book, King George III also comes under scrutiny, and McCullough presents him quite evenhandedly, as neither the buffoon the American press made of him, nor the madman his enemies portrayed when, in his later years, he suffered from porphyria.
The attention to detail and circumstance bring alive just how overwhelming resistance to the English must have seemed to the people of America. Long accustomed to considering themselves citizens of the British Empire, it is no wonder that many of them became Tories, people who could not abandon their loyalty to King and Country.
Nor were the Patriots always steadfast. Outnumbered, outgunned, out-maneuvered and largely unpaid during the first year of the war, it is not surprising that many soldiers deserted when faced with the hundreds of British ships that surrounded Manhattan from the East River to the Hudson. What is more remarkable is the number who didn’t.
It is in the depiction of the army itself that McCullough shines. He quotes extensively from letters and documents that give us insights into the suffering, despair, and privations endured by the Continental soldiers, from private to general. After their thrilling success over the British who were forced to withdraw from Boston, the Continentals were plunged into a year of humiliating defeats as they lost New York and most of New Jersey. It is almost too convenient for this book that the battles of Trenton and Princeton happened in the last week of 1776, neatly tying up the year’s dark story with a triumphant moment for the Continental forces, but that turning point in the Revolution did indeed happen. Had it not, we might now all be singing “Rule Britannia.”
I must confess that I approached this assignment with some trepidation, recalling the brouhaha involving McCullough’s misquote of Thomas Jefferson in his earlier book, John Adams, an error he acknowledged and corrected in later editions. I had also to deal with my own disappointment that in the same book, he repeated Benjamin Franklin’s disingenuous remark about never having been able to manage money (during the scandal over the accounts of the American embassy to France). That remark, from a man who arrived in Philadelphia as a teenager with nothing but a few pennies in his pocket and a loaf of bread under his arm, and by careful management amassed, by his mid-40’s, a fortune sufficient to allow his retirement and support his public service career, can only be irony, and McCullough should have recognized it.
1776, however, commands my forgiveness. It’s a honey of a book, and nobody’s perfect. Mr. McCullough, do keep at it.
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