Book Review: “1776” by David McCullough

1776Thumbby Brad Nelson
After having read — and been so throughly impressed by — McCullough’s book, John Adams, I thought that a little more American history was in order. One can’t even be a mere Sunshine Patriot without some grasp of our nation’s founding. One’s aspirations and complaints need to be shaped in the context of reality, not a Zinn-like fantasy, or else one all too easily becomes a dupe for other people’s agendas or infected with various half-truths and myths.

So you may be supposing, as I did, that history therefore must be boring because it’s supposedly good for you. It must be distasteful like spinach. And some histories are indeed quite boring, even if vital. But I was surprised (even after having read his John Adams which was a delight) that McCullough’s 1776 was such a page-turner. It is the history of General Washington and his army in the year 1776 (and the first few weeks of 1777). And it is brilliant.

Many histories, perhaps necessarily so, jump around and (to their credit) try to give the overall picture. But 1776 is tightly focused on Washington’s trials, tribulations, and high points (few though they may have been) in 1776. Because the focus is limited (and because of the author’s skill), you are able to read a true narrative of what life (and death) was like for these men. Instead of a profusion of dates and names, you follow Washington and his army (as well as the British) from the siege of Boston clear to his crossing of the Delaware and his unexpected victory at Trenton.

Replacing dates, names, and places, you will instead gain an insight into the times, the troubles, the ambitions, the hopes, and most of all the mind and skill (or lack of at times) of General Washington. You’ll read this book and wonder how the hell we ever survived long enough to even have had a chance to fight the British, let alone beat them. You will discover that, although ultimately he became a great general, Washington by no means started that way. But “perseverance” was his watchword and he had a cause that he — and the core group of men around him — believed in.

When you read this book, you will inevitably ask yourself “With Washington’s rebel army in tatters, would I have run to Admiral Howe and taken him up on his offer of pardon?” Many did. Many in the New York and New Jersey areas were heavily Loyalist to begin with. The question is not why some came running back to King George but why so many did not. There was an American spirit and independent obstinance then that may be difficult for those of us in our time to wrap our minds around in this entitlement culture where we scream bloody murder if some supposed “right” isn’t handed to us on a silver platter.

Most of us — even the good Tea Party members — are indeed Sunshine Patriots compared to those who actually stood for freedom in enormously difficult and long-odds circumstances. It boggles the mind. We owe so much, but tend these days to think only in terms of what we are supposedly owed. This book helps put things into perspective. I put this in the must-read category as part of the core curriculum of StubbornThing’s own advanced conservative studies. • (3769 views)

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Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.

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15 Responses to Book Review: “1776” by David McCullough

  1. RobL_V2 RobL_V2 says:

    I have an audiobook version, read by the author. Its a great book. Got me through many a long commute, wanted to stay in my car even after getting home, wife didn’t like that so much…

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I’m not into audio books, but I see their utility. But if I was writing a history, I could do worse then emulate McCullough. He had a real knack in this one for bringing history to life and turning it into a riveting story…which that bit of history was.

      It’s not the best moment in the book, but one of the memorable moments is when Washington is trying to lead an organized retreat north across Manhattan. And at some point the troops are just panicking and become a disordered rabble. McCullough writes that this was one of the few times (perhaps the only time) where Washington lost his cool. I guess it was something to see.

      • Kung Fu Zu says:

        The Battle of Monmouth where has reportedly called General Lee a poltroon. Washington, almost single-handedly, rallied the troops from what would have been a rout and turned the battle into a modest victory in that it is the first battle in which the Americans hold their own against the British Redcoats.

        He exposed himself to so much danger that some of his officers almost forced him to get off the front line.

  2. Black JEM says:

    A great read, and I found myself wishing for a 1777 book to read after it. But of course while the big events of the beginning of the revolutionary war were in the north, the more consequential of its end was down south under Greene, who was a superior tactician to Washington in every sense of the word.

    I have read some books about the southern campaign but I don’t believe McCullough has written any of them – at least that I remember reading. As a huge fan of Washington, I have a great deal of respect for Greene, who was just as important in winning our independence.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      Yes, wonderful point. A “1777” would be another amazing year to read about in the same narrative way.

      Yes, good point about Greene. I remember from reading “1776” that it seemed Washington was certainly a little rusty at first. But what a task. Unlike the British generals, he couldn’t demand the same from his soldiers in quite the same way. He had to ask and lead by example.

      Still, his tactics did fall short at times. And I remember reading how he had several generals who were fairly incompetent. But at that point, he couldn’t be too picky. But it always seem to come back to Greene (and was there one other stand-out?) as the go-to guy. I don’t think I had much appreciation for Greene until reading “1776.”

    • Kung Fu Zu says:

      A bookish man with a limp, I believe Greene is not as well remembered as he died only a few years after the war ended.

      The war in the South was different from that in the North. It is true, NYC was full of Tories, but by order of Congress, Washington and Greene could not burn it. As a result, it was used to quarter British troops and little fighting took around it after the Battle of New York.

      There were also plenty of Tories in the South and they got heavily involved in the war. It seems like it was more personal in the South. Both sides went to extremes. Until late in the war, the South was more of a side show. But the timing of appointing of Greene commander, seems to have been perfect. Cornwallis’ strategy to rally Southern Tories and push quickly up into Virginia was effectively blunted by Greene. Not only that, with the French going all in, Washington was able to plan on a strategic level and once he saw Greene was doing well in the South came up with the plan to pull Cornwallis into the trap of Yorktown. While Greene was retreating, Washington pulled out all stops to get in position to trap the British between the French fleet and Continental troops. It worked.

      I am not sure Greene was just as important in winning independence, but he was the only top officer besides Washington and Knox to have served throughout the war. And I believe Washington considered him his best general.

      I would say Greene should be more prominent in our teaching of the period, but they are not even teaching much about Washington, Adams and Jefferson, these days.

      • Black JEM says:

        Well, my last post got wiped out – lol! Ok round two.

        I was referencing Greene from a perspective of military acumen. Clearly, without Washington the effort as a whole would never have been successful. He was the single most important figure in the entire struggle. Had he been killed in action we would be part of the British confederation or whatever they call it still today.

        Washington is one of the most extraordinary characters in all of world history; for he is, as far as I can tell, the only person to have successfully acquired all the power imaginable and then walked away. A truly remarkable thing.

        That we fail to teach about Greene, and Adams and Jefferson and very little about Washington is an educational crime. For in failing to teach the underpinnings of what made America exceptional – and I use exceptional not to mean good or best, but rather unique and different – we have gone adrift.

        I am currently reading a booklet from Charles Murray – American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History (Values and Capitalism) that discusses this much better than I can. I would recommend picking it up if you haven’t already.

        • CCWriter CCWriter says:

          Post wiped out? Not from this end, I trust!

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          By the way, you can pick up that Charles Murray booklet here from Amazon.com for a buck for your Kindle. I might do so.

          Well said on everything, BlackJem. No other man could have kept a fighting army together as Washington did. He was so in the right place at the right time that it almost makes me believe in the hand of Providence. There is no equivalent of George Washington in the history of the world, at least that I am aware of. Who gives up such power as he had, especially to a fragile ideal as liberty and to a relatively impermanent group as the Continental Congress? A remarkable thing indeed.

        • Kung Fu Zu says:

          I agree with you on all points and would go further and say I think Washington is the most extraordinary man in history.

          Not only did he walk away from power, but when he had power, he used it judiciously and always remained within the law.

          Sulla fought for, gained and then walked away from power but he slaughtered hundreds if not thousands to get to power and once he was in power. One gets the feeling that he only left because he had become bored or lost interest. It was all selfish.

          Washington walked away from power at least twice. Knowing his honor and rectitude, the framers of the Constitution created the office of the presidency with him in mind, which is why is is so powerful.

          Unfortunately, too many of those who later held the office have had no such honor or honesty.

          • Black JEM says:

            Yes, that is true – and the admonition to elect people of character to office has been replaced by “its just sex”.

            We get the government we deserve. In spades.

            The funny thing is, the people who can least afford this debasement of government and the indifference to the character one should possess in order to wield govt’s incredible power are the very people the slick talking big government types (who think character concerns show their own distinct character failings) claim to care about the most.

            Beautiful.

            I can reasonably assume those of us reading here are more than capable of resisting the siren song of debasement and taking the easy route in life and so the stupid things the progressives do and say have little to no impact in our decision making process. But for those without the will, or family support, get sucked into the vortex of misery the progressive state always seems to create.

            What a terrible way to live.

  3. Black JEM says:

    Well, Henry Knox I think comes to mind as one of his field generals in the north and of course Arnold, though a hot head, was critical in the Battle of Saratoga. I think you could write a book on 1777 – after that the northern campaign is pretty much a stalemate.

  4. Libertymark says:

    I love spinach! LOL! I also loved 1776 and read almost all of his books because of it. I loved The Path Between the Seas if for nothing else but a perspective on the history of the Panama Canal. (Then that moron peanut farmer found a way to give it away. Gawd, what a fool/tool he was!)

    Of course his seminal work John Adams is a must read. Even the TV series based on it it is pretty good.

    Try Truman, too, but I think it’s much more roses than reality. How Truman was not tainted by the Kansas City corruptocrats is a mystery McCullough does not fully explain., or is in denial about.

    Great quote: “No guy named ‘Harry’ can ever get elected President.” LOL. I forget who said it. Some apparatchik of the time. Harry, the last guy elected POTUS with only a HS education. Worth a jaunt with McCullough.

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