1776: A man, his war, and their year

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1776 by David McCullough is not a new book — it was published in 2006 — but I just got around to reading it, enjoyed it, and wanted to say a few words about it.

But first my David McCullough story.

You probably don’t know Scotty MacNeish (aka Richard Stockton MacNeish), but you should. He ended his illustrious career in a car accident in the field (in Belize, if I recall correctly) about 15 years ago, but many years before that he started out his career by discovering the origin of Maize, identifying its site of domestication and the timing of that important moment in Native American prehistory.

I had these two friends, back in graduate school, one of whom worked on the Franklin Expedition, the other ran Biosphere for a while. Anyway, they got married, and I was invited to the wedding. As a non-relative and roughly equal friend to both, I was seated at the reception table for odd balls, and had the pleasure of sharing that table with Scotty.

There were two or three others at the table, including a very well dressed and dapper middle aged gentleman who seemed to be fancy. But, since we were at a wedding reception at the 18th century home of the state’s largest lumbar barron, there was a lot of wealth around, so he wasn’t sticking out. But, Scotty, who is a bulldog populist with the sense of humor of a hyena, seemed to be going after the guy, putting him down (in a humorous way, mostly) and essentially, trying to cut him down to size for some reason.

Somewhere during the conversation, someone, not this gentleman and not Scotty as I recall, but someone else, mentioned the just released and highly popular documentary, “The Civil War” by Ken Burns. Surely, you know it. But, at the time, I’d only had a chance to see one or two episodes and it has been a while since I saw them. The gentleman at the table seemed to know something about the series, so I asked him, “Did you have something to do with the Civil War documentary?”

He looked at me for a moment. Everyone at the table looked at me. It was pretty obvious I had faux pas’ed all over myself. He grinned a little and said, “Young man, I am the Civil War.”

That was David McCullough. The guy who did the Civil War. Like this (starting about 1:40):

OK, so, now, about the book, 1776.

This is a book about a man, his army, and a year that he and they might like to mostly forget.

The American Revolution had roots back many decades before 1776, and the first actions of the war happened in 1775. 1776 started with the siege of Boston by Washington and his army, and it ends with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware to defeat the unsuspecting Hessian army.

One could argue that the evacuation of Boston by the British was a solid victory for the Patriots, but really, it was not so simple. One could argue that the crossing of the Delaware and defeat of the Hessians at Trenton was a solid victory for the Patriots, and that would be undeniably true, even if in the larger scheme it was a small victory compared to some other things that happened. In between these two events, almost everything that could go wrong went wrong. Reading the history of Washington’s army in that year, if you could do that without already knowing what ultimately happened, you can imagine any of a number of possible outcomes, none of which is an American victory over the British. And, the final event of the year, the victory in New Jersey, was not the kind of victory that changes the course of a war. If anything, it was just enough to decide not to give up yet.

I was generally aware of what happened that year. I’ve done a lot of work and research surrounding the American Revolution in New York and New England. I excavated the city burned during the battle of Bunker Hill, and did work along Paul Revere’s Ride (did not find hoof prints), and other Revolutionary war related localities in Massachusetts. I grew up visiting Fort George and Fort Ticonderoga in New York every few years, and I excavated on Phillip Schuyler’s grounds (you will know him as the father of Hamilton’s wife), and spent a fair amount of time in the vicinity of Saratoga (the decisive battle of that war). But, 1776 was not a rehash for me. First, it was not archaeological, but historical. Second, McCollough uses a lot of source material that had not been developed back when I was doing scholarly work in this area. Third, much of the story takes place in New York (the city) and although I’m from up river, it is not an area with Revolutionary War sites I’m familiar with.

American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 is very well written. It is not dense or long, as many history books are, yet it is very well documented if you want to follow the footnotes. It is revealing of the real George Washington, who was probably a mixture of what you were thinking and some stuff you were not thinking, and it is also revealing of the nature of the Revolution itself, how close it was to failing, while at the same time, how inevitable it was to take a certain course. I recommend the book.

I read this book because I wanted to develop an updated perspective on that time, and this, I felt, would be a good segue from other things I’d been reading, and a good refresher. Next in line: American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 by Taylor, followed by Alexander Hamilton by Chernow.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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9 thoughts on “1776: A man, his war, and their year

  1. I agree with your assessment of this interesting book, which I bought soon after publishing and read. I must revisit but have some other worthy books on the go dealing with the creation of the modern state of Israel with the usurpation of Palestinian lands, from ‘The Balfour Declaration’ and the events in the area during WW1 ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ with illuminating narrative in ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’ and ‘The Biggest Prison on Earth: The History of the Israeli Occupation’ both by Ilan Pappe

    Having previously read ‘Six Days: How the 1967 War Shaped the Middle East’ by Jeremy Bowen I understand which side the angels should be on.

  2. #1: As far back as known history goes the various regions within the Middle East have been conquered by one group of people after another, Forced religious conversions and/or enslavement and/or forced emigrations occurred during most of these conquests. Where angels come into it I can’t see but I’m sure the conquerors thought themselves blessed by the gods of their own religions.

  3. I’m sure I’m not alone in this but the thing that impressed me most about George Washington is his voluntary surrender of power afterwards. This was very unusual, perhaps unique in human history. It was probably not just a matter of Washington’s personal character; the English tradition of some sort of shared power and the emerging enlightened philosophy of the times were also factors of importance, but I’m sure that there were many men who would have at least tried to cling to power and perhaps even attempted a kingship.

    I’ve also been surprised that even though the American Revolution showed the military value of hanging on despite defeats and continuing organized resistance (including guerrilla warfare) against an at least semi-principled antagonist, the U. S. has still embroiled itself militarily in large scale, long term incursions in Viet Nam and the Middle East where short of draconian subjugation of the population, there is not even a possibility of eliminating organized resistance.

  4. ” It was probably not just a matter of Washington’s personal character; the English tradition of some sort of shared power and the emerging enlightened philosophy of the times were also factors of importance,”

    Check up on the life of Charles Darwin and you find him a fairly similar character.

    Read up on Newton and you’ll find that the English aren’t all nice and generous people even for those who are unwelcome by them.

    But there IS a bit of “Play a straight bat” in the semi-aristocracy of the English post-enlightenment. Coupled with some unthinking superiority over all others.

  5. So TW at #2

    Does that mean that you condone Israel’s behaviour in the West Bank (where they should not have been at all) or Gaza?

    Before answering that maybe you should look up on USS Liberty. See e.g. James Bamford, ‘Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency’ Chapter ‘Blood’.

    ‘On the side of the angels’ is a common enough expression which should not require further amplification.

  6. #5: I wasn’t condoning anything that I mentioned. I was just extending the historical context beyond the last few decades and including a comment on seemingly common need for rulers and nations to justify their behavior as divinely sanctioned. Do you disagree?

    BTW, I do remember the USS Liberty affair and I also remember that Jewish extremists used terrorism against the British to encourage them to remove themselves from what was then called Palestine. Just another part of the long, tragic history of the Middle East.

  7. #4: Thanks for the comments. I have read some about Darwin — mostly about his science rather than his personality and I’ve also read a couple of short biographies of Newton. He was by all accounts very vigorously unpleasant in his treatment of contemporary scientists such as R. Hooke and G. Leibnitz. Recently I reread a book on the Plantagenets which, of course, included the Magna Carta and also described precursors of the modern Parliament. At the time of the American Revolution the ideas of shared governing power and of the basic rights of those governed were both therefore well established in the American mind.

  8. I also remember that Jewish extremists used terrorism against the British to encourage them to remove themselves…

    As do I being a Brit and understanding news bulletins of the day despite my then tender years and having relatives serving out there. Now being a Brit I find your use of divinely in, ‘…rulers and nations to justify their behavior as divinely sanctioned…’ odd, given the divine sanction, if the Bible is to be believed, for the Hebrew assault on Jericho which was bloody and brutal. Maybe it is such that you had in mind.

    Now the Plantagenets, there is some devilish history which Simon Schama includes in the first of three volumes: ‘A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World? 3500 BC-AD 1603’

    Now on the American Civil War I have found ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’ by James M. McPherson an absorbing read.

  9. #8: I’ve read volumes one and two of Schama’s History of Britain. I wish I had the kind of memory to retain more of what I read of the fascinating, complex history he described of that relatively small area of the world. I thank you for the reference to the McPherson book. In return I recommend Shelby Foote’s Civil War trilogy. I particularly like the way he humanizes the presidents, generals, and many others by incorporating biographical material and a liberal sprinkling of quotations of their verbal and written comments.

    The 1850s and 1860s in the U. S. provide further examples of my comment on the tendency of people throughout history to claim the support of divine beings with both abolitionists and pro-slavery individuals using Biblical quotations to justify their positions. During the Civil War, Leonidas Polk, an Episcopal bishop, was a general in the Confederate army and commanded troops in several battles before being killed himself.

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