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1776 Paperback – June 27, 2006
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"Brilliant . . . powerful . . . 1776 is vintage McCullough: colorful, eloquent and illuminating." -- Newsweek
"Should be required reading in living rooms from coast to coast." -- Dorman T. Shindler, The Denver Post
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Let me be clear: 1776 is a good book, and McCullough’s skill as a writer is undeniable. Though he quotes primary sources liberally, occasionally to the point of absurdity (for example, a passage from pages 115-116 reads: “Henry Knox and his artillery were to move ‘as speedily as possible’ by ‘the directest road thither.’ Several times Washington referred to his own ‘extreme hurry.’” Just say they had to go fast, for crying out loud…), 1776 is nevertheless a page-turner. Regrettably, though, major battles and the broader military campaigns that led to them are all McCullough tackles in 1776. The Declaration of Independence and the politics of the early Revolution are glossed over quickly in favor of the war. No doubt that’s exactly what some readers desire, but be warned that despite its title, 1776 is not a comprehensive history of America’s first year.
I’m not someone who believes “academic” history is the only history worth reading, but McCullough’s talent is his ability to package history for the masses. I want detailed endnotes and attention to the broader historical significance of the events about which I’m reading; McCullough provides only what I would call a quality review of major events. Though I wouldn’t describe my reading 1776 as time wasted, I must limit my recommendation to readers who know very little about the American Revolutionary period. I can’t think of many better places for a beginner to start, as 1776 is engaging and easy-to-read. However, I would just as strongly steer readers familiar with the period away from 1776 toward something like Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, an academic yet captivating book that covers the same period in American history.
I think that those Americans who read this book will, like me, feel more strongly patriotic and value more greatly the selflessness of those who fought for our country in its infancy. And I think that non-Americans who read it will better understand what it means to be an American, and hopefully see our country in a more favorable light. Yes, I realize that America has its problems, both currently and historically, and that we're certainly not beloved by everyone throughout the world, but it's nonetheless moving to at least try and perceive what we mean when we talk about the "American spirit": that feeling of unbounded liberty that allows us to truly pursue happiness. "1776" offers a path.
The book has a generous 32 pages of black-and-white as well as color illustrations. Mr. McCullough demonstrates how weather, lack of intelligence, chance, communication, supplies, recruitment efforts, and luck played important roles in the outcomes. I found it interesting and laughable how both sides kept declaring their victories or lucky breaks were God's will. George Washington is front and center in the book but the author also focuses on others who have been lost to history except to the most avid history buffs. On the American side, such important figures as Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and Joseph Reed are given credit for their efforts. On the British side, the central figure is General William Howe. '1776' avoids myth building by explaining in detail the condition of the troops, Loyalist who hoped Washington and his small ragtag army would be defeated, military successes and blunders, the states' reluctance to risk their troops on what many viewed as a lost cause, acts of courage as well as cowardice, and horrible acts done by both sides.
Great history makes an effort of giving an accurate representation of what was and not what people wish it to be. The United States is no different than any other country in trying to whitewash uncomfortable aspects of our past. Politicians and demagogues are especially zealous at spreading the patriotic manure of our country’s complete moral purity. Mr. McCullough is a necessary corrective to their jingoistic bilge. He is one of those historians who not only tells a compelling story but shows our past's successes, failures, and mixed results. '1776' only covers one year but what a year it was. The reader will conclude the book truly understanding how close we were to remaining under British rule.
Top international reviews
McCullough emphasises the contribution on the battlefield, for without victory there, the declaration of independence would be just a mocked document down the path of history. Yet, the initial battles were not easy, and many of the men who fought for America were either too young or too old. America was also in dire shortage of guns and ammunition. Britain had a large professional army, complemented by the feared Hessian troops.
In the second half of the year 1776, George Washington, Nathanael Green, and Henry Knox became the unlikely heroes of all time. They had their share of defeat and humiliation - one of Washington's generals (Lee) was captured and taken prisoner by the British. Losses at the Battle of Brooklyn and the surrender of Fort Washington were low points told with a dash of the thrill of war and the shame of men new to warfare, but McCullough produced stunning accounts of the reversal of fortunes at Trenton and Princeton that makes this book so interesting. McCullough produced the shock of stunning reversals of fortune that readers may feel the battle heat as if she had been right there at the frontline.
As for the physical quality of the book: not great, my version in the end fell apart.
My recommendation would be not to buy this version but to look around for a Simon & Schuster version.
Content will no doubt be worthy of 5 stars, Presentation however only worth 1 star. Hence on balance 3 stars.
David McCullough has the amazing gift of placing his reader in a comfortable armchair amidst the events unfolding in his books thus creating almost a 3D view of great historical events. I only wish he would write about the other years of the War of Independence.
It was well researched, well paced and contained many first-hand accounts from the diseased and filthy soldier right up to the slightly less diseased and filthy Generals. This all adds up to a book that reads more like a novel than a dry, historical text. I would also say that it seems like a balanced account of both the events and notable characters.
It was so good that I have just purchased two more from Mr McCullough.
It's wonderfully well researched and written with great quotes and anecdotes backing up the story. A great book all round.