Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1600
In a companion volume to his best-selling biography John Adams (2001), David McCullough closely examines a year of near-mythic status in the American collective memory: 1776. It was the year that the Continental Congress, meeting in steamy Philadelphia, decided, “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free...
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In a companion volume to his best-selling biography John Adams (2001), David McCullough closely examines a year of near-mythic status in the American collective memory: 1776. It was the year that the Continental Congress, meeting in steamy Philadelphia, decided, “these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states.” It was also the year that the American Revolution began in earnest and was nearly lost. With his strong sense of narrative and his gift for capturing the humanity of his subjects, McCullough leads readers through a well-known story with both style and grace.
McCullough structures the book into three large subdivisions. The story opens in England, October 26, 1775, with King George III of England addressing the British Parliament on the war in the North American colonies. McCullough takes issue with the commonly held notions of the king, often more known for the madness of his later years (thought to have been brought about by porphyria triggered by arsenic ingestion) than for his intelligence and hardworking leadership of his country. McCullough offers the British perspective on the events in faraway North America first, re-creating the debate in Parliament over the king’s decision to quash the rebellion.
From his description of the situation in Britain at the end of 1775, McCullough turns to the situation in Boston. After the opening Battles of Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, the colonials had engaged the British in what was commonly known as the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although technically a British victory, there were one thousand British casualties in the skirmish. In July, 1775, when George Washington arrived to take charge of the colonial troops, the British soldiers were under siege in the city, with supplies and food running dangerously low.
McCullough uses his opening chapters to summarize the state of the opposing armies and to introduce some of his major characters: Washington, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and William Howe. Washington, a Tidewater planter, was also an experienced soldier and surveyor, serving with distinction under Edward Braddock in the French and Indian War. McCullough reminds readers of Washington’s background: “Like other planters of the Tidewater, Washington embraced a life very like that of the English gentry. English by ancestry, he was, in dress, manner, and his favorite pastimes, as close to being an English country gentleman as was possible for an American of his day, and intentionally.” That Washington would risk so much to take command of what appeared to be no more than a “rabble in arms” speaks to his deep commitment to the American cause.
Greene, according to McCullough, was an unlikely candidate as a general: he was a Quaker, had a limp, and had never been in a battle. He was just thirty-three years old. Although he had little formal schooling, he educated himself through reading. His correspondence is rich with description of Washington, the war, and the meaning of life. Some of McCullough’s most memorable passages in 1776 are from Greene’s pen. Likewise, Greene’s friend Knox, a well-known Boston bookseller, had a damaged hand, a Loyalist wife, and no experience as a soldier. Yet Knox proved to be one of the most ingenious and intrepid among Washington’s force, bringing cannons from the captured Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York across many miles and in terrible weather to the battle at Boston.
McCullough is not content to focus solely on the Americans, however. He writes evenhandedly about the British generals Howe, Henry Clinton, John Burgoyne, and Charles Cornwallis. Howe had served under General James Wolfe, who called him “the best officer in the King’s service.” As commander of the British troops in Boston, he showed great courage. As McCullough writes, “At Bunker Hill, assuring his troops he would not ask them ’to go a step further than where I go myself,’ he had marched in the front line. . . . After one blinding volley during the third assault, he had been the only man in the front line still standing.”
The first section of the book closes with the March “miracle of Dorchester,” when, in a surprise move, the Continental Army occupied the high ground surrounding Boston and began a bombardment that ended with the evacuation of British troops from the city. McCullough summarizes Washington’s accomplishments in the siege of Boston:He had . . . bested Howe and his regulars, and despite insufficient arms and ammunition, insufficient shelter, sickness, inexperienced officers, lack of discipline, clothing and money. . . . He had kept his head, kept his health and his strength, bearing up under a weight of work and worry that only a few could have carried.
The second section of the book, “The Fateful Summer,” describes the movement of the war southward from Boston to New York, where the British and the Americans fought for control of the city through the late summer of 1776. In this struggle, the Americans fared less well than in Boston. “The Battle of Long Island,” McCullough writes, “had been a fiasco. Washington had proven indecisive and inept. In his first command on a large-scale battle, he and his general officers had not only failed, they had been made to look like fools.” Even Washington’s brilliant night evacuation of his men, although impressive, could not remove the stain of defeat from the encounter. If there is a weakness in the narrative of 1776, however, it is in this middle section. Although McCullough describes the strategies of both the Americans and the British straightforwardly, the pacing is slower than in the first or third sections. Nonetheless, these pages clearly show the extraordinarily narrow margin that separated the American cause from utter defeat.
In “The Long Retreat,” the final section, the pace quickens. McCullough details the final months of the year, as Washington and his army retreated into New Jersey. These were the “times that try men souls,” according to Thomas Paine in The American Crisis (1776-1783). The British, along with Hessian troops, moved steadily into New Jersey as well, threatening Philadelphia and the Continental Congress. Finally, the American troops and the British troops found themselves, with winter setting in, on opposite sides of the Delaware River. Washington and others understood that time was crucial to their cause. Joseph Reed, Washington’s adjutant general, wrote to the commander on December 22, urging him to take action: “Our affairs are hastening fast to ruin if we not retrieve them by some happy event. Delay with us is now equal to total defeat.” It was out of this desperate need to act that Washington decided on a surprise attack on the Hessian troops at Trenton on Christmas. In a blinding blizzard, Washington managed to move his troops across the Delaware River at night on December 25. In forty-five minutes after the attack began, Washington’s troops had surrounded the Hessians, who surrendered.
Washington again moved his troops, before the British could retaliate. On January 2, 1777, troops led by Greene and another group led by Hugh Mercer surprised the British near Princeton, and a heated battle ensued. Alexander Hamilton and his men surrounded Nassau Hall on the Princeton College campus, where some two hundred British were garrisoned, capturing them all.
According to McCullough, for the British, the defeats at Trenton and Princeton were no more than skirmishes; for the Americans, the victories were vital. They revitalized the patriot cause with revolutionary zeal. Although there were many long years ahead for Washington and his army, the events of the closing days of 1776 kept the cause alive.
McCullough maintains that the year 1776 served as a training ground for Washington, Greene, and Knox, the only general officers still in the Continental Army by the time of the last battle, fought in Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, when American and French troops surrounded British troops led by Cornwallis. For Washington, McCullough writes, “experience had been his greatest teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”
By the end of the book, however, it is also clear how much chance played its role in the quest for American independence. In the pivotal year of 1776, McCullough concludes that “often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, [and] the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference” in the nearly miraculous success of the American colonies to establish themselves as an independent nation.
At its heart, 1776 is a story of men and action. Through diaries, letters, contemporary newspaper articles, and standard historical accounts, McCullough has woven together compelling portraits and a seamless narrative. He is often able to capture the essential humanity of one of his characters through just a few words or a particularly apt quote from primary material. Moreover, he moves the action without sacrificing his characterizations. Nonetheless, some critics have found 1776 light on analysis and narrow in scope, and others have criticized McCullough for giving the Declaration of Independence and its framers short shrift. Readers interested in a wider view of the year 1776 ought to consider reading John Adams along with 1776. In this considerably longer book, McCullough spends ample time on the Continental Congress and the larger philosophical issues of the day.
The events of this book are well known to anyone who has finished high school-level American history. When an audience already knows the outcome of a book, it is a rare writer who can infuse the narrative with page-turning suspense. McCullough is just such a writer. With skill and grace, he allows the participants in the events of 1776 to speak through their long-silent diaries and letters, offering modern-day readers a glimpse into the earliest days of the United States of America.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43
Booklist 101, no. 13 (March 1, 2005): 1100.
The Daily Telegraph, July 5, 2005, p. 26.
Entertainment Weekly, May 27, 2005, p. 143.
Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 7 (April 1, 2005): 404.
Library Journal 130, no. 7 (April 15, 2005): 102.
The New York Times 154 (May 24, 2005): E1-E9.
The New Yorker 81, no. 14 (May 23, 2005): 87-90.
Newsweek 145, no. 21 (May 23, 2005): 42-46.
The Washington Times, June 7, 2005, p. A02.