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Saturday, April 15, 2006 

Book Review: 1776

McCullough, David G. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. 400pp.

"The year 1776, celebrated as the birth year of the nation and for the signing of the Declaration of Independance, was for those who carried the fight for independance forward a year of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear, as they would never forget, but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country, and that, too, they would never forget.
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 or strengths of individual character had made the difference -- the outcome seemed little short of a miracle."

Overview of the Book

So closes, does the above quote, McCullough's magnificent book about the battles that raged and the people who pursued independance in that incredibly important year of American birth, 1776. From opening sentence to those final words, McCullough's 8th book does not disappoint the reader when it comes to suspense, intensity, and depth. Though properly named after the year on which it focuses, the book is really about the significant battles that took place in the northern states between the American "rabel" under General George Washington and the stalwart, disciplined army of His Majesty's, King George III's, forces.

McCullough's book begins in the year 1775 -- October 26, 1775, to be exact -- with King George III's speech to the British Parliment concerning the military action which he felt needed to be taken against the American rebels. As he informed Parliment that the Americans intended to seek independance from their rule (though the Congress had not declared such, nor had they yet even taken up such a discussion), a large regiment of British soldiers across the Pond in America were licking their wounds from the Battle of Bunker Hill, a skirmish that though won by the British would prove to be a moral victory for the Americans.

From there, McCullough guides the reader through the world according to George Washington. Drawing on private letters, public correspondance, and written accounts, he wraps the storyline around this dynamic character who must learn military strategy by experiencing devastating mistakes and incredibly sophisticated sucesses while commanding an army that proves its worth at times in retreat, and yet shows cowardice and a lack of integrity in numerous battles. The entire hope of American independance is put on the shoulders of Washington, who readily admitted even from his appointment "that [his] abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important trust" asking Congress at that time that ". . . lest some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered by every gentleman in the room that I this day declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I [am] honored with." Little did he know at this time that during 1776 he would experience many of these unlucky events which would prove very unfavorable to his reputation. Still Congress, and a few of his officers, never wavered in their support of him, eventually causing John Adams's prophecy -- that Washington would eventually become "one of the most important characters in the world" -- to become a reality.

McCullough details battles and skirmishes that take place from the seige at Boston through to the stunning victory at Princeton in the first days of 1777. Throughout it all several things are apparent. One is that Washington, though a neophyte in military strategy, was a quick learner and an able leader. He looked the part at all times, even his very appearance causing many soldiers to take on attitudes of bravery and patriotism. Another obvious point is that the soldiers were terribly unskilled and often broken by sickness and fatigue. They often frustrated Washington, who wrote numerous times of the soldiers' cowardice and lack of discipline. Finally, it was easy to see that the failure of the British to take the Americans seriously resulted in many lost opporunities to end the war in 1776.

Why Christians Should Read This Book

What is most surprising about McCullough's book is that it paints a picture of the American troops that one does not often find in high school and college history books. The soldiers are revealed to have been lazy, undisciplined, and lacking in hygiene and integrity. It is eye-opening to see that few ordinary soldiers acted like the Godly men they are often portrayed as, and yet how often the generals showed themselves to be serious followers of Christ, ultimately leading to the success of the Americans. Were it not for the resolve, faith, and integrity of men like George Washington, Nathanael Greene, and Henry Knox, America might never have realized the dream of independance. Christians should be aware of not only America's righteous history, but also of its unfortunately past that is marred by sin and human depravity.

Another reason why Christians need to read 1776 is that it presents an understanding of war that many in this country have forgotten. War, death, and peril were a part of life for the Americans for many years, this after a similar lifestyle under the British, who participated in the bloody Seven Years War, or as it was know in the colonies, the French and Indian War. Though not celebrated, war was considered a necessary evil, due to the depravity of man and the ever present need to defend one's family. The men that fought in the American Revolution, many of whom were clergymen and dedicated Christians (some even Quakers, who have always been classified as pacifists), did not see war as unChristlike and in opposition to their faith, but rather as a means to end government tyranny and the resultant suffering of men under the heavy hands of a vile dictatorship. One may well come away from the book with a different view of combat.

Problems With the Book

Though McCullough, a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, writes with flair and depth, he seems at times to lose the reader in a sea of facts without adequate background or reference. An example of this is found in the second chapter where McCullough fails to give the reader a real picture of the layout of Boston, despite vividly portraying the Americans couragous midnight move to take Dorchester Heights, securing the city for the rebel troops. One must look at a map of Boston in 1776 (the one provided by McCullough is woefully lacking in detail) to understand the amazingly brilliant and dangerous move on the Heights. Another problem with the book is that McCullough focuses entirely on Washington and the troops under his command. Nothing is mentioned regarding the attitude or situation in the Southern colonies and most disappointing is the lack of details regarding the signing of the Declaration of Independance, which McCullough notes was of great importance to the morale of the soldiers and the will of the officers.

Overall Rating

McCullough's latest book is deep, insightful, well-researched, and easy to get into, and thus deserves an overall rating of 8 rebels out of 10. This book has opened my eyes to many aspects of the American Revolution about which I never before considered. It gives the reader a framework for understanding the miraculous results of the war born out of the desire to be free from the rule of a tyrant king and his loyal subjects in Parliment.

About me

Paul was not interested merely in the ethical principles of religion or of ethics. On the contrary, he was interested in the redeeming work of Christ and its effect upon us. His primary interest was in Christian doctrine, and Christian doctrine not merely in its presuppositions but at its centre. -- J. Greshem Machen.

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