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...
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