David McCullough’s 1776, Reviewed by Emma
1776 by David McCullough is the account of the year 1776 during the age of the American Revolution. It is the account of George Washington’s troops in the ‘Continental Army’ and the reality they lived, as well as the battles they fought in defense of America. McCullough’s history of the American Revolution is distinct from traditional American narratives, because he also explores the experiences and characters of British officials and soldiers as well as lesser-known or lesser-discussed American officers. David McCullough is an American popular historian and author of twelve history novels, but best known for his biographies of prominent Americans including John Adams and Harry S. Truman. Along with two Pulitzer Prizes, McCullough has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. 1776 was written with the aid of a large number of sources from “more than twenty-five libraries, archives, special collections, and historic sites” both in the United States and the United Kingdom.
David McCullough’s 1776 is a unique version of the events of the American Revolution, presented as a story, events are the victories and pitfalls of both British and American officials whom he presents vividly. A stark contrast is made between the American amateurs commanded by the godly George Washington, and the traditional British military men. It is with the help of diaries, letters, and papers, belonging to each of these officials that McCullough pieces his narrative together and which also allows for his intense characterization of the men involved. However, missing from the account are analysis of the political and social aspects fuelling the Revolution, events occur and are reacted to as the result of individual agents, without a deep explanation of their political motivations.
McCullough, in his account of arguably one of the most significant years in American history, focuses on the battles over Boston and New York. His version of the year 1776 focuses on the reality lived by people, American and British alike, at this time, not only the military triumphs and losses. 1776 explains the regional conflicts amongst American soldiers not yet united, as well as the strong regional stereotypes from New Englanders – disorderly and brutish, to Virginians – put together and fortunate. It also shines light on the fact that the American forces while impassioned and determined, were not seasoned fighters, unused to military life and conduct, and just generally a ‘rabble in arms’. American soldiers were drunken, disorderly, and overconfident, while their commanding officers were not forceful and were unaware of rank. McCullough presents these officials in stark contrast to General George Washington.
McCullough analyzes Washington’s role in the war and his character in great detail. Throughout the narrative, Washington’s presence and influence emerges, and re-emerges. Washington is presented quite clearly as a man above the rest, one who was awed and respected by his own troops as well as the British forces. Always collected, dignified, and cool-headed, Washington is pictured as the hero of the story without a doubt. However, McCullough also draws attention to Washington’s supporting actors and even his enemies, whom are presented as not quite as god-like as Washington, but full of heart and relatable intention. Lesser-known officials such as General Nathanael Greene, Joseph Reed, General Israel Putnam, and General Henry Knox are thrusted into the spotlight, and their roles in the Revolutionary War exemplified. These men are treated as key players in the narrative and much attention is paid to describing their character and their lives, as is paid to their military involvement. Notice is also given to British officials in 1776 with McCullough describing the part played by Lord Germain, Lord North, Lord Howe, and even King George III.
All of these prominent figures are treated like characters, and their actions are presented along with their motivations and their backgrounds, even their pasts. The American officials are generally ragtag and inexperienced such as Nathanael Greene. Greene was a Quaker with a stiff right leg, a limp, and asthma. He was the youngest official in the American Army at thirty three years old, and had only been a soldier for six months. However, it was his 1500 Rhode Islanders who were seemingly the most put together of the troops. Greene contrasted with British Lords Clinton and Burgoyne who were “well-connected, well-schooled aristocrats, and, as major generals, at the threshold of the peak years of their career.” This comparison is a deliberate and unconventional choice on the part of McCullough and contributes to a larger trend in his account of the American Revolution: the inclusion of two sides of the story. The battle for Boston which culminates in a seeming victory for the Americans, as well as the back and forth nature of the battle for New York, gives a voice to both the English and Americans. In this way, 1776 is unlike other American accounts of the Revolution, it makes no attempt to de-humanize the British, or glorify the American forces, it aims to give an even account of the events.
Yet, 1776 is a highly narrativized version of American history. The progress of the account is treated as the typical plot structure of a fictional novel. When presenting the battle for Boston, the Americans are depicted as an unlikely mess pitted against a sophisticated army of redcoats. Their victory is unexpected and the plot first explains their unfitness, but intense spirit, and their losses against the British, all in anticipation of their triumph in Boston after the evacuation of the British forces in the city. The story is told very linearly, and even the battle in New York is presented as a humbling event for the Americans in response to their victory in Boston. All events of this plot are made possible and are interpreted through the eyes of McCullough’s ‘characters’ or the officials involved. His descriptions of the prominent figures are comprehensive yet theatrical, describing their thoughts and emotions. Interactions are even, in some cases, presented as dialogue where officials speak to each other within the narrative. Again, all made possible by primary sources such as personal accounts of events such as diaries, journals, and letters.
So much focus is given to agents in the story that mention of the past, politics, or previous battles is neglected. While there is continual mention of the Continental Congress in Washington’s letters to John Hancock, there is little mention of the changing political situation facing independence and little mention of the Declaration of Independence itself. The Congress and Declaration are referred to distantly, as distantly as King George III’s orders or the political situation of British Parliament are referred to when mentioning the actions of the British army. McCullough’s version of the year 1776 is thus presented almost as an isolated world, where characters act and react with only the influence of their own goals and heart. 1776 is presented as if the collection of many small biographies working in common to piece together the events of a year.
David McCullough in 1776 deftly describes the men involved in the Revolutionary War and makes them unique. He emphasizes the agency of these men and illustrates the complexity of human involvement in military and political events, doing so with the help of many excellent primary source documents. McCullough brings the words of these men to his readers in order to explain the events of the year 1776. However, the presentation of the year 1776 as twists leading perfectly to turns of fate, as well as the strong emphasis on characters, gives the illusion of a mythical account. The story appears to happen inexplicably, and characters must react. While this style of historical account makes a perhaps dull military history palatable, it disregards influences other than the goals and beliefs of the selected few men McCullough chose to accentuate. 1776 is an interesting history presenting two sides of the story, but still narrowly telling the tale of the American Revolution through the eyes of a handful of men. However, if readers bear in mind that it is indeed the tale of only some men and how they specifically influenced the war, they will be enthralled with these lively characters.