David McCullough’s “1776” is a book that deals with what can be argued to have been the important year in American history. It does so by focusing on key events as they took place, and by providing descriptions of the individuals who were most directly involved. By focusing on the start of the American Revolution, McCullough is able to to focus both on the behaviour of the founding fathers and also on the ways in which their actions were interpreted and responded to in England via portraits of both the king George III and several key English generals. Most importantly, however, the book is concerned with presenting an honest portrayal of the key figures, and even demonstrating how some of the most important moments of the year were the result of luck and good fortune, rather than what is often assumed to have been the historical ability of Washington or any of the other most famous figures. As such, the book presents an honest picture of the period, and can also be taken to demonstrate the importance of everyday individuals and soldiers within the narrative of American history.
The first major figure to feature in the book is George III, the king of England at the time of the American Revolution. Already with his portrait of George, McCullough makes it clear that he is concerned with challenging the dominant perceptions of the individuals who will feature in his narrative. Rather than supporting the perceptions of the king as dull and incompetent, McCullough suggests that he was a cultured and sensitive individual who maintained a serious art collection while playing several musical instruments. By presenting the narrative of the revolution as beginning in London, McCullough also draws direct attention to the immense distance which separated London from America in 1776 and to historical tradition within which the American colonies were firmly embedded.
The descriptions English parliamentary tradition and of the regal life of George III form a stark contrast in the book to McCullough’s descriptions of the siege of Boston, which is taken to be the first major conflict of the year and on which the majority of the book focuses. In the sections which describe the siege. McCullough makes clear the harshness conditions that people in and outside of the city endured. At one point, for example, he writes of how several hundred individuals who died of a fever known only as “camp fever” or “putrid fever,” a name that designated “highly infectious, deadly scourges of dysentery, typhus and typhoid fever, the causes which were unknown or only partially understood.” As such, at the same time as serving to provide clearly humanized and flawed portraits of the key figures who were involved in the war, McCullough also clearly draws attention to the stakes of the conflict, and makes it evident that American forces were in conflict with individuals who had little understanding of the complexities of their situation.
One early portrait that McCullough presents serves to make clear the distinction that existed between the physical suffering of many of the soldiers involved in the siege and the attitudes of commanding officers. When discussing the siege, McCullough describes Brigadier James Grant, an English general as a “grossly fat Scot” and as someone who had utter contempt for American individuals and had once boasted to the British parliament that he would be able to march across the whole of America with only five thousand troops. This description, along with others paints a vivid picture of the arrogance that was a part of the English army, as well as serving to present a stark distinction between the reality of the conditions of war for the people who fought it and the perceptions of their generals.
Arguably the most important portrait that McCullough presents in the book is that of George Washington. Once again, one of the primary purposes of McCullough portrait in this instance is to move away from traditionally reverent portraits of Washington and judge him solely by his action and his competency. When McCullough does this, it is made clear that Washington’s leadership throughout the year was frequently deficient and that he made key errors of judgement which were only vindicated because of equally, or even poorer judgement on the part of European forces. One moment when this becomes especially clear comes when McCullough quotes Washington’s belief that the British would inevitably cross the Delaware in the winter and take Philadelphia which the most important city for the revolution at the time. Such a manoeuvrable would also have involved destroying the remainder of the rebel army and effectively ending Washington’s campaign. Despite this belief, however, McCullough describes how the British made the decision to cease combat for the winter; something that effectively enabled Washington to confidence his camping but that did not do as a result of any particular skill or ingenuity of his own.
In conclusion, “1776” can be argued to have two primary aspects. The first of these is to describe the reality of the suffering endured during the first year of the American Revolution; something that is then complemented by realistic and non-patriotic presentations of the most famous individuals involved in the war. Taken together, these presentations serve to show the importance of good luck and of the everyday activities of American soldiers in eventual success of the revolution and the people who, albeit in an continually flawed way, continued to lead it.