The book actually opens toward the end of 1775 with King George III addressing Parliament about the “rebellious war” in America. With that starting point, McCullough offers a balanced look at how the war was viewed on both sides of the ocean. As someone with barely a high school textbook knowledge of the Revolutionary War, I found it eye-opening to read accounts of the war as anything less than a noble cause.
To see how the Declaration of Independence was basically scoffed at by England, though it makes perfect sense that it would be viewed with contempt, was interesting. I never really thought about how the whole war, which the British viewed as a nuisance at first, appeared to the “other side.” McCullough showed quite clearly that the men now held in such high regard by the United States were seen as incredibly unpatriotic and disloyal by their former countrymen in England.
In fact, the book’s ability to offer the casual reader (or casual historian) different perspectives on commonly held beliefs was the true value of the book for me. The mental picture many have of patriotic Americans marching off to war for the blessed cause of the suppressed colonies is simply destroyed by 1776.
McCullough uses seemingly endless research of personal diaries, letters, and other documents, to offer a view of the war from those who lived through it. According to 1776, plenty of colonists opposed the war, a steady flow of soldiers deserted for the other side or were more than happy to leave once their enlistment ended (sometimes leaving the army in dire straits), and the leadership of Washington was often rightly doubted.
It was also surprising how, at times, the focus of those involved in the war was on other things. For instance, Washington is portrayed as having written detailed letters to the caretakers of his home about things he wanted done, and suggested he’d be there before too long. Troops left the war after being away for a while to tend to their own homes. Clearly independence from England wasn’t always seen as a do-or-die struggle.
Aside from all of that, the book (or historical fact) makes it seem almost ironic that 1776 is revered by Americans. By the time I reached page 200 of 294, I began wondering if we actually won the war. Again, the image of a rag-tag colonial army beating up the strongest military in the world is revealed as fantasy. The British pretty much thumped the colonies for the entire year until Washington’s sneak attack across the Delaware.
Part of the problem I had, I think, was the focus on the one year, which leaves too many unanswered questions. The implication is that the attack that started Christmas night was the turning point of the war. No doubt it was, but the war went on for years. After reading about so many colonial defeats, I wanted a clearer understanding of how one attack changed everything.
To be honest, when I decided to read the book I thought it was more about the diplomacy of the time as opposed to the focus on the military activity. Historians seem to focus on wars to the extreme, which may be perfectly reasonable since the Declaration of Independence might be one of those tedious details of history had of history we lost the Revolutionary War. That said, the author’s focus on specific battles made for some tedious reading for me. I’d rather read about the debates over the Constitution than the war that let us write one.
Obviously, I’m not about to suggest McCullough’s Pulitzer prize winner is anything less than worth reading. But most will find 1776 slow reading.