David McCullough has written another book that will be bought and read by hundreds of thousands of Americans, perhaps millions. Professional historians, their degrees framed on the walls of their offices and their salaries funded by hard-working taxpayers, will eat their hearts out once again. Their books will not sell or be read except as a requirement for their own graduate seminars. The reason is obvious. Professors in academe today generally discount good, old-fashioned narrative history for Marxist theory, psychoanalytical biography, social history, quantifying studies, or postmodern deconstructionism. They write only for themselves, and their prose is politically correct, agenda-driven, dull, vapid, or impenetrable. Once upon a time college professors commanded a wide audience and helped make the American people historically literate. Now that job is left to David McCullough and others like him who have not forgotten that a historian’s principal job is to tell a good story and to tell it with passion, insight, suspense, poignancy, and power. McCullough does so brilliantly.
History is about people—living, breathing, flesh-and-bone people—and McCullough never forgets this. His latest effort, 1776, is all about the people who fought for the Glorious Cause in the year of the Declaration of Independence. He clearly loves the cause and those who followed General Washington in a year that was full of victories and defeats, drama and boredom, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and selfishness, and optimism and despair for the American rebels. McCullough takes the reader into the ranks of the American troops, into their disease-plagued camps, their battlefronts, their homes, their love lives, their thoughts and beliefs. His extensive use of primary documents, including letters, diaries, and memoirs, generates an intimacy and an immediacy that makes for a page-by-page adventure. The reader can’t help but become a participant in the Glorious Cause.
McCullough begins his story with the debates in Parliament over the troubles in the American colonies. Whigs and Tories were very much in disagreement, but so too were Whig and Whig and Tory and Tory. It is difficult not to be reminded of America’s involvement in Iraq today. Augustus Henry Fitzroy, the Duke of Grafton and a former prime minister, contended that he had once agreed with the government’s hard-line policy that the colonists should and could be whipped into submission, but now he realized that he had been misled and deceived. He astonished his fellow lords by urging the repeal of every parliamentary act aimed at the colonies from the Stamp Act forward. “This, I will venture to assert,” said Fitzroy, “will answer every end; and nothing less will accomplish any effectual purpose, without scenes of ruin and destruction, which I cannot think on without the utmost grief and horror.”
Others remained resolute in their determination to punish the impudent colonists. Edward Gibbon, a member of the House of Commons who was busy writing the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, thought the power of the British Empire must be “exerted to the utmost.” This meant mobilizing the empire’s manpower. “Irish papists, Hanoverians, Canadians, Indians, etc. will all in various shapes be employed,” wrote Gibbon, reminding me of neocon Max Boot’s recent proposal of United States citizenship for any foreigner willing to serve in the American armed forces.
McCullough, though, is primarily concerned with the American rebels, from lowly privates to General Washington himself. McCullough is clearly enamored with Washington, and so too were all who came into contact with him. Without him it is likely the War for Independence would have been a failed insurrection. McCullough is at his best when describing Washington’s hold on men:
Joseph Reed, a young man with a long jaw and a somewhat quizzical look in his eyes, was a charming, London-trained Philadelphia lawyer who had been chosen as part of an honorary escort when Washington departed Philadelphia for his new command. Reed had intended to ride only as far as New York, but found himself so in awe of the general that he continued on to Cambridge to become Washington’s secretary, despite the fact that he had made no provisions for his wife and three young children or for his law practice. As Reed explained, Washington had ‘expressed himself to me in such terms that I thought myself bound by every tie of duty and honor to comply with his request to help him through the sea of difficulties.’
Sea of difficulties was right. Washington himself often privately expressed that if he had fully appreciated the magnitude of the task he faced, he never would have accepted his appointment as commanding general. That he never revealed his inner turmoil, persevered through the darkest of times, and never failed to inspire his men to heroic sacrifice for the Glorious Cause seems like something out of Greek legend.
While Washington, a Virginia aristocrat of great physical stature and social standing who had fought in the French and Indian War, was reasonably well prepared for the task that was thrust upon him, many other American leaders came from humble and unlikely origins. Nathanael Greene, when only 33 years old, became the youngest general officer in the American army. By that time he had only been an active-duty soldier for less than a year. Before the War for Independence erupted he had never served in a campaign and had never fought in a battle. He was a foundryman by trade, and everything he knew about warfare and the duties of an officer came from books. Moreover, a childhood accident had left him with a gimpy leg, and he suffered from asthma. The leg caused his initial rejection as an officer. Undeterred, he gamely served as a private. His intelligence, courage, bearing, and leadership qualities quickly became apparent. He rapidly rose through the ranks and was put in command of all American forces from Rhode Island. Like Washington, he could transfix men with his eyes. A soldier recalled his “fine blue eyes, which struck me with a considerable degree of awe, that I could scarcely deliver my message.”
Also commanding attention as well as coming from a nonmilitary background was Henry Knox. The seventh of 10 sons of Scots-Irish immigrants, the Boston-born Knox evidently got plenty of food. He stood a little over six feet and weighed something in excess of 250 pounds. He had a booming voice, a razor-sharp mind, a gregarious nature, and, despite his mass, boundless energy. His father had died when Knox was a young child, and he had worked hard to support his mother. By his early twenties he had his own bookstore in a fashionable section of Boston, offering a “large and very elegant assortment” of the latest books and magazines, according to his advertisement in the Boston Gazette. John Adams was a regular at Knox’s bookstore. Nathanael Greene was another. Greene and Knox shared a love for military history and the art of war, each reading dozens of books on the subjects. Knox was especially fascinated with gunnery and tactics and became something of an armchair authority on both. His knowledge would come in handy. Like Greene, Knox was also less than entirely physically sound. During a hunting trip a shotgun had exploded when he fired at a duck, leaving him without two fingers on his left hand.
The injury did not slow the massive bookseller. He was soon courting the daughter of a prominent British official. Her father was upset by the thought of having a bloody Scots-Irish colonial for a son-in-law and tried to prevent the marriage. When he failed to stop the nuptials, he arranged for Knox to be commissioned in the British army to afford him some respectability. Knox declined the offer and, when the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, he and his bride slipped out of Boston in disguise to join the Glorious Cause. The in-laws would later sail for England and never set eyes on their daughter again. A writer of fiction could not hope to compete with McCullough’s purely factual but wonderfully spun storytelling.
It was, of course, Henry Knox who suggested to Washington that the dozens of cannons at far away Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain be retrieved for use against the British at Boston. Knox’s plan was audacious, but Washington gave his consent and put Knox in command of the expedition. By mid-November, Knox was underway, moving his men at up to 40 miles a day and reaching Fort Ticonderoga on Dec. 5. Now the fun began. Knox selected 58 mortars and cannons for transportation, some 120,000 pounds of iron and brass. By sleds, by barges, by manpower, by ox power, Knox began moving the weapons towards Boston. It was an epic expedition, over mountains, down valleys and rivers, across lakes, and through forests, inspired, driven, and sustained by Henry “The Ox” Knox. Whenever the expedition came upon a town, the settlers turned out to gawk and cheer. “We were great gainers by this curiosity,” said a member of the expedition, “for while they were employed in remarking upon our guns, we were, with equal pleasure, discussing the qualities of their cider and whiskey. These were generously brought out in great profusion.”
Knox arrived outside Boston with every gun intact. Washington fully appreciated the feat and immediately put Knox in command of the artillery. Moreover, the sudden increase in American firepower made British positions in Boston untenable. On St. Patrick’s Day, the British evacuated the city. It was a stunning turn of events for the Redcoats and a tremendous morale boost for the ragtag Americans.
Day by day, week by week, McCullough takes the reader through 1776 and develops an intimacy with the Greenes, Knoxes, and dozens of others who fought in the Glorious Cause. There were nearly as many failures as successes, but again and again the American rebels demonstrated an indomitable spirit, clearly evident in both word and deed. McCullough’s descriptions make one proud to be an American, something that is prohibited in academe today, but something that partly explains the popularity of his work. Connecticut farm boy Joseph Martin, after facing a far larger British force, declared, “I never spent a thought about numbers. The Americans were invincible in my opinion.” Another militiaman said that there was not a man in the ranks who did not consider himself the equal to two or three British soldiers. The Scots-Irish riflemen from the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers were especially disdainful of the massive numbers the British could put in the field. “Just more targets, boys,” summed up their feelings.
Through all of this Washington looms larger than life. Had he been born in classical antiquity, said the Pennsylvania Journal, he would have been worshipped as a god. “If there are spots on his character, they are like the spots on the sun, only discernible by the magnifying powers of a telescope.” McCullough argues persuasively that his efforts and leadership were little short of miraculous. On the last day of December 1776, with enlistments expiring in the Continental Army and the men eager to return home, a formation was called and the assembled men asked to step forward to re-enlist. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Then appeared General Washington, mounted on a splendid horse. Speaking extemporaneously he addressed the men, as one soldier put it, “in the most affectionate manner”:
My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty, and to your country, which you can probably never do under any other circumstance.
Again the drums rolled, but this time the weary veterans stepped forward. “God Almighty,” declared Nathanael Greene, “inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.”
Roger D. McGrath is an historian in California and the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen and Vigilantes.