Palatable, digestible, and uncharacteristically bite-size, David McCullough’s new page-turner, 1776, arrives just in time for Father’s Day. Though the title suggests a wide-angle portrait of that crucial year, McCullough has once again zeroed in on a single heroic figure. Like his Pulitzer-winning Truman and John Adams, the 294-page 1776 celebrates the manly rectitude embodied by an American president, in this case the Father of Our Country. But I cannot tell a lie: Though there is nary a dull moment in this breezy book, 1776 amounts to a deeply unsatisfying account of both a fascinating man and a pivotal historical moment.
McCullough has chosen a year that resonates with our national psyche but brought the 43-year-old George Washington mostly misery. With his usual eye for colorful primary source quotations, McCullough evokes both the stature of his patrician hero (”There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side,” one Philadelphian wrote) and the army he had been given to lead. As a British observer reported, ”They desert in large bodies, are sickly, filthy, divided, and unruly.”
Washington did not disagree. A rich Virginian who loved fox hunting, architecture, and theater (particularly Joseph Addison’s tragedy Cato), he found the New Englanders under his command ”exceedingly dirty and nasty.” They drank too much and ran off to dig clams at any chance. But Washington’s cardinal strength, McCullough asserts, was ”an acceptance of mankind and circumstances as they were, not as he wished them to be.” He was also, to use one of our current president’s favorite adjectives, ”resolute.” As Washington wrote in a letter, ”Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages.”
Actually, in the absence of sufficient manpower and gunpowder, neither perseverance nor spirit did any wonders for Washington in the crucial battles of 1776. On July 2, the Continental Congress voted to ”dissolve the connection with Great Britain,” and eight weeks later the redcoats drove Washington’s army off New York’s Long Island. McCullough’s verdict: ”Washington had proven indecisive and inept: He and his general officers had not only failed; they had been made to look like fools.” Three months later, Washington suffered another bitter defeat at Fort Washington, N.Y. Only in the last days of 1776, in a surprise attack, did Washington tentatively redeem his reputation and what he called his young country’s ”glorious Cause.” It is here, with the better part of a decade of war still ahead, that McCullough ends this engaging but fatally attenuated account.
Like the late, lamented Barbara Tuchman, McCullough has been unfairly criticized for glossing over ideas in favor of a seamless narrative and vivid characterizations. In fact, McCullough’s finest books, like his 1981 portrait of the young Theodore Roosevelt, Mornings on Horseback, are gems of cultural history, every bit as informative as they are fluidly written. With 1776, sadly, the accusation of ”history lite” hits the mark. McCullough dispatches the Declaration of Independence in two pages, and it’s a mystery what, say, Thomas Jefferson might be up to. You can polish off this volume without the slightest grasp of the glorious Cause that motivated Washington to slog through sleet and mud for eight brutal years. McCullough has crafted a deliciously readable book that leaves you famished for philosophical context.