“Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.” — General George Washington
1776: America and Britain at War tells the story of the start of the American War for Independence. Written by McCullough as a companion piece to his earlier biography of John Adams, it explores the events and military campaigns through the perspectives of their central actors; George Washington, King George III, General Howe, Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene.
The story opens with the address given in London by the King in late 1775 and concludes shortly after the Battle of Trenton on Boxing Day 1776. In between, it vividly dramatises battles such as the Siege of Boston and political events such as parliamentary debates in London, Washington’s congressional correspondence and the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The book is enriched by several pages worth of maps drawn by British engineers, historical portraits and landscape paintings and newspaper caricatures, dispersed throughout.
It’s often said that what makes the American people special is their patriotism. Throughout the book, the reader gets a clear picture of how and why the spirit of America under Washington came to rebel, and the disdain the British loyalists held for the “rabble”.
“It was Hull, later, who reported Montresor’s account of Hale’s last words as he was about to be executed: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” which was a variation on another then-famous line from the play Cato. (One imagines that in delivering the line to his British executioners, Hale, knowing that it was as familiar to them as to him, put the emphasis on the second-to-last word: “my country”
1776 offers a more coloured view of the war than the distilled, analytical version to be taught in history classes. This is by virtue of its emphasis on descriptions and quotes from individual soldier’s eyewitness accounts, letters and diary entries. In the source notes McCullough details just under 300 of these from over 25 libraries, archives, historical sites and collections in both the US and UK (this is excluding the bibliography). Here is one such account:
“As Frederick Mackenzie recorded, The British were astonished to find how many of the American prisoners were less than fifteen, or old men, all “indifferently clothed,” filthy, and without shoes. “Their odd figures frequently excited the laughter of our soldiers”.
Not only does the style provide the dramatised events with a flavourful dimension, it packs the events to the brim with obscure and fascinating heroes from the halls of history, such as Margaret Corbin:
“Only one American hero was to emerge from what happened at Fort Washington. She was Margaret (“Molly”) Corbin, the wife of a Pennsylvania soldier, John Corbin, who had gone into battle at her husband’s side, and when he was killed, stepped into his place, to load and fire a cannon, until she fell wounded, nearly losing one arm.
Characters such as Washington, though presented quite heroically, don’t seem embellished. In fact, a major feature is Washington’s frequent indecisiveness and the great military cost of this.
Towards the 200-page mark, the narrative does feel a bit long in the tooth. The insistence by McCullough to present so many accounts, from both the British and American side, and so much detail on each event will tire some readers.
But the book’s greatest strength is also to be found here; reading 1776, one gets a lively account of the many ordinary heroes and the intensely mythological patriotism of the army made up of untrained farmers, lawyers and doctors who became something more than the sum of their parts. The book will thrill students of history with General Washington’s drive and the many miracles that led the founders to form a country that would reject the idea that individuals are subject to the divine rule of the Monarchy and one day assume its destiny in leading the free world.