The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 12, 2005


David McCullough's 1776: Individualizing the start of the American Revolution

Almost every day, I drive past the Old North Bridge (or, rather, the New Old North Bridge, as it will be when its reconstruction is complete). The view of the bridge from the Carlisle side of Monument Street is now clearer, because of the felling of so many trees to make the area look as it did on April 19, 1775. Every time I see this sight, I feel a little awe-stricken, and lucky to live so close to "where it all began." The American Revolution, the nation itself, really did start right in our back yard.

For people who are not as fortunate as Carlisleans are, David McCullough has written 1776. His popular 2001 biography of John Adams and his earlier Truman made these presidents seem almost as if they could be our next-door neighbors. This is McCullough's special gift: humanizing history and making the people who lived it seem familiar.

The book begins in October 1775 with King George III declaring that the American colonies were "in open revolt" and his committing "land and sea forces — as well asforeign mercenariesto put an end to that rebellion." In this first chapter, McCullough introduces many of important British government figures, describing them physically from their portraits and philosophically from their letters and speeches. These quick sketches also reveal British opinion about their leaders and about the American colonies in that autumn after Lexington and Concord. McCullough's scholarship is sound, if a bit compressed. The British political situation with regard to America was complicated; McCullough employs the voices of many of the principal policymakers, military personnel, and members of Parliament to illustrate the variegated richness of that controversy.

The issue was complicated on our side of the Atlantic too. Significantly, King George "denounced the leaders of the uprising for having American independence as their true objective, something those leaders themselves had not yet as openly declared." As McCullough shows later with "on the scene" voices, even the Declaration of Independence did not entirely clear up the question of whether America would become one nation under a central government or a series of sovereign states. McCullough sets out to demonstrate that the year 1776 was a watershed one that set the colonists' course for a new nation. Only by the close of that year and the extension of the conflict into New York would the "Free and Independent States" in the "united States of America" of the Declaration crystallize into a single entity that people would begin to call the United States of America.

Using "on the scene" voices to tell a story is familiar to us, on screen,as well as in McCullough's books. Ken Burns has employed it to great effect in his ground-breaking documentaries, notably The Civil War, on which David McCullough served as both historical consultant and narrator. Mixing the words of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Chestnut, George MacClellan, Robert E. Lee, and other figures of the period with those of modern historians like Shelby Foote and others brought the pain and purpose of that war into our living rooms and made us better understand the ideas and feelings of those who lived through the struggle. 1776 could easily be a target for another Burns documentary: it is replete with the journal entries, correspondence and reminiscences of politicians on both sides of the conflict, as well as soldiers, from Washington to "Private Joseph Martin, a 15-year-old Connecticut recruit." McCullough's voice in the book is similar to his narrative voice in The Civil War: he places the events and recounts whatever is known about them, as well as their results and consequences. The voices of the people involved fill in the emotional details and bring the battles and sieges to life. It is a powerful way to tell a story, especially if the story is true.

Perhaps the book is too much like a Ken Burns documentary. Although the scholarship is deep, the revelation of that scholarship is superficial. Each of the major figures in the Revolution deserves a full biography instead of a thumbnail description. Each of the separate events of the year deserves a book, so perhaps this book is too short, too much of a summary. However, this is halfhearted criticism, because McCullough's purpose is perhaps less to provide a complete history of 1776 than to show that people like us experienced the events, comforts and privations of that year: people who confronted discouragement, fear, elation, frustration. McCullough tries to answer the question not so much of what happened, but of how people lived through and influenced what happened. His purpose here appears to be to present a popular history of the year the Revolution took shape. If more information is required, plenty of resources are available, including those listed in the 24-page bibliography at the end of the book.

Even though we can visualize the beginning of the Revolution every April 19 or any time we choose to wander among the ghosts in Lexington, Concord and Boston, 1776 will enhance our knowledge and appreciation of where we live and what started here 230 years ago.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito