Nothing is Inevitable, Not Even America: David McCullough’s 1776

Rocky IVAs a Victorianist, I honestly don’t read much American literature (or literature about America), which is odd since I’m American. My recent nighttime reading, however, included David McCullough’s 1776, an informative, engaging, and masterfully written exploration of this crucial year in America’s history. First published in 2005, I’m obviously a little behind the times in finding it, but I’ve been pretty much mired in nineteenth-century British literature for the past ten years. So, better late than never! I will also say that this book isn’t totally beyond my scholarly scope. I mean, we forget that modern America is essentially post-colonial, that we (along with Australia, Canada, India, Africa, and others) were at one point a central piece of England’s vast colonial empire. The American uprising also represents one in a number of late eighteenth-century revolutions (lookin’ at you, France) affecting England well into the long nineteenth-century. So, my leisure reading didn’t exactly stray too far into the historical wilds.

Recent discussion about this era of American history (the sorts I often see online or overhear in conversion) reveals a troubling mythologization of America’s founding and its founding fathers. As if our country’s formation and ascendency were inevitable, its leaders divinely inspired and consistent in tactic and purpose. We often look on these events from the relative comfort and prosperity of our current situation (warts and all), without thinking that history might have unravelled very differently. McCullough’s 1776 proves so valuable to our understanding of America’s beginnings, then, because it resists and pushes back against an uncomplicated, teleological view of our country’s formation.

McCullough presents an unvarnished rendering of American troops. They were a motely group, mostly young men with no sense of discipline or past military training. They wore no uniform and often failed to perform the most basic acts of personal hygiene. Often drunk and disorderly in their free time, many proved downright cowardly or insubordinate in battle. What’s more, a good portion of them lacked the daily necessitates and accouterments of an arsenal to prove effective in battle. Washington aptly characterized them as “raw materials” in private (24), fully comprehending the difficulty such an inchoate group would experience when going up against one of Europe’s most well-appointed and disciplined military powers.

McCullough’s book is at its best when drawing from an array of primary sources and personal correspondence to illuminate the complexity and precariousness of America’s fight for freedom. Such texts help better recreate the actual conditions and factors influencing the war’s outcome. For instance, he draws from the journal of a fife player, one John Greenwood, in his portrayal of the conditions preceding Washington’s Christmas Day surprise attack on Trenton, NJ. Greenwood records how

it rained, hailed, snowed, and froze, and at the same time blew a perfect hurricane, so much so that I perfectly recollect, after putting the railes on to burn, the wind and fire would cut them in two in a moment, and when I turned my face to the fire, my back would be freezing. However…by turning myself round and round I kept myself from perishing. (275)

This source provides a vivid account of the war’s brutal conditions, of dangers and tribulations extending beyond actual battle. It also illustrates the often fickle or uncontrollable factors influencing a battle’s outcome, which had nothing to do with the armies’ resources or experience. For instance, McCullough repeatedly illustrates how weather could tip the scales in favor of American victory, or vice versa. At Trenton, a violent nor’easter helped muffle the evidence of Washington’s preparations, and, earlier in the year, a thunderstorm and unfavorable winds held off British warships so that American troops had time to retreat from New York, with subsequent fog camouflaging their movements (186-191). Incidents of personal ineptitude or laziness also attributed to a battle’s success. At Dorchester, Washington’s army pulled off its surprise attack in part because one man—Brigadier General Francis Smith—chose to ignore reports of rebel advancement (93). Later, just before the battle of Trenton, Hessian Colonel Johann Gottlieb Rall misinterpreted one warning and ignored another, thus securing American troops the element of surprise. Indeed, their demolition of the Hessian men posted there took “forty-five minutes or less,” with very few American casualties (281), an unlikely outcome had Rall’s men known of an impending attack.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the book’s portrayal of General Washington.  McCullough refuses to idealize the man who is now so thoroughly entrenched in our national mythology, who became our first president, and for whom our capital takes its name. Instead, he presents a nuanced delineation of a man whose actions earned him the highest of praises and respect, but also at times warranted a good deal of criticism. I was surprised to learn of his disdain for members of his troops and his frequent despair at their sorry state. In a letter to Joseph Reed early in the campaign, Washington “[f]illed page after page” with the woes of his situation:

I have often thought how much happier I should have been if, instead of accepting of a command under such circumstances, I had taken my musket upon my shoulders and entered the ranks, or, if I could have justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience, had retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam. If I shall be able to rise superior to these, and many other difficulties which might be enumerated, I shall most religiously believe that the finger of Providence is in it, to blind the eyes of our enemies; for surely if we get well through this month, it must be for want of knowing the disadvantages we labor under. (79)

Later, discouraged at the apparent lack of patriotism and loyalty in his troops, Washington laments to Green that

he had ‘never seen such a dearth of public spirit and want of virtue’ as among the Yankee soldiers […] ‘These people’ were still beyond his comprehension. A ‘dirty, mercenary spirit pervades the whole,’ he wrote. ‘Could I have foreseen what I have and am like to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.’ (64)

Furthermore, despite the harsh critiques he leveled at his troops, Washington was not always the best leader. Indeed, his indecisiveness marks a key issue plaguing his command. Time after time, Washington waffles between intensions, changes course at the last minute, foolishly splits his army in attempts to cover all bases, and yields to the advice of lesser men. A letter from General Lee to Joseph Reed explains as much and indicates the extent that even Washington’s closest and most capable friends found fault with some of his actions (or lack thereof):

I received your most obliging, flattering letter—lament with you that fatal indecision of mind which in war is a much greater disqualifier than stupidity or even want of personal courage. Accident may put a decisive blunder in the right, but eternal defeat and miscarriage must attend to men of the best parts if cursed with indecision. (254)

Despite this damning critique, however, Washington’s men rallied behind him and remained loyal. Despite his own frustrations and horror at the state of his army, Washington continued in his post—and ultimately with the American cause—because he had agreed to it and still believed in its rightness. As McCullough explains,

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he had learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up. (293)

And, ultimately, he was lucky, as was his cause. McCullough leaves readers with the following statement:

Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning—how often circumstances, storms, contrary winds, the oddities and strengths of individual character had made the difference—the outcome seemed little short of a miracle. (294)

McCullough’s greatest achievement in 1776 is how he pieces together these various instances of happenstance, which helped the American cause gain momentum. His impressive archival research—made up of official and unofficial accounts of battles and conditions—evokes the words and emotions of individual players to absolutely fascinating and moving effect. The end result is a nuanced and humanized look at how, against the odds, the American colonies came to be the United States of America. To me, this story proves much more interesting than the one so often bandied about, where our success was the inevitable result of American superiority and the spirit of liberty.  American independence had a lot to do with some people’s unceasing devotion to the cause, but success was clearly not inevitable, and we were not the superior army. In fact, America’s success seems downright absurd, given the circumstances, but I find I am prouder of it for being so.

Perhaps I’m simply a sucker for the underdog, for those flawed-but-big-hearted individuals who make it in the end. In the way of blockbuster hits, McCullough’s Americans are the Rockies to England’s seemingly endless parade of better-prepared Creeds/Dragos. Even the best and most revered of America’s early leaders made mistakes and grew dejected. Given the circumstances, who wouldn’t have? Many probably weren’t fired with righteous inspiration to fight for freedom, might simply have been opportunists or worse, but some clearly and fervently believed in their cause, if not always in their fellow patriots.  They had no script, no precedent to follow, and their successes often owed as much to chance and circumstance—to snow, rain and wind—as planning and precise tactical execution. And yet, perhaps foolishly, they did not give up, and I admire them more for that sheer dogged perseverance than any sort of divine inspiration or gloriously-enacted liberation.

McCullough’s scope only covers the events of this one important year, and he skims over the extent that foreign aid also helped tip the scales. Indeed, our final triumph in 1783 stemmed from numerous causes, the most important of these being the combined military muscle of France and Spain. Furthermore, McCullough largely ignores many of the more troubling underlying issues of the revolution, such as the continuation of slavery and the displacement of the Native Americans. In its battle with England, America figures as the underdogs, the unlikely patriots taking on a mightier force. Its leaders inhabit a different role, however, in relation to other oppressed groups. As is so commonly the case, their motivating ideologies contained key blind spots that allowed for the continued oppression of various social subgroups. Ultimately, though, I argue that what McCullough illustrates so brilliantly in 1776 – some of the complexities and personal factors that led to America’s unlikely independence – can exist in the same space as these more troubling issues. Each facet helps fashion a more complete picture of America’s beginnings, which were often inspiring, messy, and highly problematic all in the same space.

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