Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Book Review: 1776

David McCullough begins 1776 on October 26, 1775. His Royal Majesty, George III, is addressing the opening of Parliament on "the increasingly distressing issue of war in America." The King and Parliament see the war as rebellion. The Americans, in contrast, really do not want to be independent from Britain. Rather, they want their rights as Englishmen to be recognized. They want representation. They want their concerns heard. The idea of independence has been whispered, but has not yet taken hold.

The year 1776 proves to be a pivotal year. By July, independence from Britain is declared and those who sign the formal Declaration fully understand the cost. The American "rabble" have proven themselves equal to the British Army, then the finest in the world, on several occasions. But they also have made serious strategic mistakes and, but for the grace of Providence, the rebellion could have been over in a year. And these men and women do believe the hand of God is guiding their affairs.

Mr. McCullough uses many primary sources: letters, journals, memoirs. But he includes not only those of the famous men and women--Washington, John Adams, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox--but those of the common soldier, the ordinary men who left home, their fifteen-year-old sons who joined them, the twelve-year-old drummer boys and fifers. We read the frustration of Washington who pleads for money from the Continental Congress, who is unsure of what the British Army and Navy are planning, who waits almost too long before evacuating Brooklyn Heights, who plans an audacious raid on Trenton and succeeds. The British generals and admirals underestimate the courage and tenacity of the common American; still, had the weather cooperated or had they been a bit bolder, the British would have defeated the colonials.

At the end of year, Washington has learned much. Still the war doesn't end until 1783 and the Treaty of Paris, six and a half years later--a fact we present-day Americans tend to forget.

The Revolutionary War also laid the foundation for the "American character." Washington was a self-educated man, a fact that he felt keenly, especially among the Virginia aristocracy. But he had tremendous strength of character: whatever doubts or misgivings he had, he kept private. He also promoted men of talent, no matter their age, experience, or station in life. He inspired tremendous loyalty which held the Continental Army together through defeat and privation. He was also a consummate politician and established the tradition of civilian oversight of the Army.

Washington also learned from his mistakes. And he made plenty of them--another fact we tend to forget. Wars never go as planned.

France and the Netherlands offered financial assistance as well as troops and ships to the young American colonies, but only after it seemed that the Americans might win.

Mr. McCullough's decision to concentrate on one year--and to focus on the military battles, rather than the political ones--keeps the narrative from being overwhelmed. Using primary sources from those in the trenches as well as the generals brings an immediacy and intimacy that is often lacking in standard history texts. I find Mr. McCullough's style easy to read and absorbing (although I wish he had included modern maps of the battle fields as well as the contemporary ones drawn by the British and American armies). 1776 might not be your typical "beach book," but it's not your dry history tome, either.

Most importantly, this book reminds us of the cost of our freedom from Britain. The Declaration of Independence was paid for in blood and in the personal fortunes of many of those we now consider patriots. Families were torn apart, with many Loyalists fleeing to England, leaving behind their friends, family members, livelihoods, property. The cost in lives equaled 1% of the population, a figure that would not be exceeded until the Civil War.

In my not-so-humble-opinion, 1776 should be required reading for every high school student taking U.S. History.

On the March Hare scale: 5 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks

crossposted at The Mad Tea Party

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