1776: America and Britain at War

This week’s post examines American historian David McCullough’s 1776: America and Britain at War (2005), which is an account of the events of that fateful year from both the British and American perspectives. Over the course of a long career, McCullough has published numerous bestselling books and has managed that rarest of feats – writing historical works that appeal to a wide audience but without sacrificing any scholarly integrity. Hallelujah…..it can be done! He has won two Pulitzer Prizes and a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honour in the United States.

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The American War of Independence had begun in April 1775 with battles at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, followed by the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston. In the beginning, the colonists were not seeking independence, and instead only redress of their issues with King George III and his government, particularly that of ‘no taxation without representation’. The intransigent and aggressive stance of their opponent however, slowly alienated the colonists in North America and drove them to seek independence from Britain, a conflict which would come to a head in 1776, a highly significant year in American history.

From the beginning, 1776 is written in an easily accessible narrative style, focusing exclusively on the events of that year on both the American and British sides. Possibly the most significant and eulogised figure in American history, George Washington, emerges as a man prone to self doubt and militarily incompetent, at least in the beginning, though he reveals an ability to learn from his mistakes as the narrative progresses. Indeed, one of the strengths of this work is how it uses primary sources such as letters, newspaper reports, diaries etc. to really give us an idea of how the protagonists felt, their hopes, doubts, and so forth. Washington’s distress at how the war was going and his desire to return home and leave the fight for independence to others are interesting to read, revealing an all too human side.

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Once the colonies were in open revolt, it was inevitable that the mother country would retaliate. Not for the first or last time in history, Britain reacted with extremely punitive measures designed to crush any opposition, instead of an attempt at conciliation and accommodation which would probably have satisfied the majority of the colonists. Of course, not all in Britain were in favour of going to war in North America. In the House of Commons, McCullough quotes Charles Fox describing plans for an invasion as ‘so silly a contest about so silly an object, conducted in the silliest manner….from which we are likely to derive nothing but poverty, disgrace, defeat and ruin’. So that’s a no from Charlie then.

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Perhaps the most surprising element to emerge from the narrative is how monumentally unprepared and amateur the American forces were, and how easily they could have been defeated if those leading the British forces had shown more courage and aggression. In some ways, it is actually incredible that the colonists were able to defeat possibly the most powerful army on earth, and it is likely that overconfidence on the British side played a part. Many of those on the rebel side were lacking in discipline and in military training, and hardly fit for battle. McCullough writes of one Connecticut unit which was comprised entirely of what were known as “aged gentlemen”………’they were twenty-four in number, and their united ages reached one thousand’. I was never great at my sums, but I reckon that means their average age was approximately 41.6……which means your distinguished author is about 5 years past being an aged gentleman.

The Declaration of Independence -- Dunlap Broadside (U.S. National Park  Service)
Declaration of Independence

Ultimately, the major criticism that could be levelled at this work is a lack of background contextual information. It provides an in-depth analysis of Washington’s forces and their actions during the year in question, but there is little information or context for the reader who may not be familiar with the events leading up to 1776 and indeed the aftermath of this. As Neal Ascherson wrote in the Observer on the book’s release in 2005, ‘McCullough is not trying to tell the story of the American Revolution or even of the whole War of Independence….the minus is the lack of political background, which is perfunctory….plenty has been written about that elsewhere, but at least a sample should have entered this book’. Personally I’m also lamenting the lack of maps from the time in this work, especially as there is a huge focus on events in both Boston and New York. There are many portraits of the main people involved, but there should also have been maps of the areas discussed throughout this work, alongside images from the time if possible. To be fair to McCullough however, he does give some very detailed and vivid descriptions of the incredibly rural nature of Brooklyn and Manhattan in the eighteenth century.

I did feel that it dragged a little at times, and there was perhaps too much focus on some of the more mundane events in the year 1776. Overall however this is a reasonably entertaining and enjoyable narrative, enlightening the reader on a fascinating period in American history.

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