Celebrate the Fourth with a Good Book
One of the chief delights of growing older is revisiting things you thought you knew and realizing you really didn’t know them at all.
Take, for example, the American Revolution. Like any other red-blooded American, I studied the subject throughout my school career and felt I knew the subject as well as the next guy (which, upon further assessment, was probably true—because the next guy tends to know next to nothing).
Anyway, one day, on a whim, I picked up a copy of David McCullough’s 1776 at the library. Read it. Realized I hadn’t know shit.
1776 is just what a history book should be and it is proof that a well-researched, sober, non-partisan chronicle of a certain historical period can be just as compelling—if not more so—than the most masterful piece of fiction.
In the case of 1776, its compellingness comes from great attention to character. The book begins with a look at King George the Third:
…To a remarkable degree he remained a man of simple tastes and few pretensions. He liked plain food and drank but little, and wine only. Defying fashion, he refused to wear a wig… Socially awkward at Court occasions—many found him disappointingly dull—he preferred puttering about his farms at Windsor dressed in farmer’s clothes. And in notable contrast to much of fashionable society and the Court, where mistresses and infidelities were not only an accepted part of life, but often flaunted, the King remained steadfastly faithful to his very plain Queen.
This is hardly the portrait of the decadent, clueless tyrant we’re commonly presented with. Here we have a flesh-and-blood man—which makes the story of the Revolution all the more forceful, I think.
McCullough doesn’t demonize the antagonist; likewise, he refuses to deify the protagonist, George Washington:
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.
Washington also had a very contemporary-seeming obsession with the remodeling of his house. Even amidst some of the most crucial moments of the war, Washington would dispatch letters to the caretakers of Mount Vernon like this one, which was about fireplaces:
That in the parlor must, I should think, stand as it does; not so much on account of the wainscoting, which I think must be altered (on account of the door leading into the new building), as on account of the chimney piece and the manner of its fronting into the room.
In highlighting this personality quirk of Washington’s and in criticizing some of Washington’s decisions (or indecisions), McCullough doesn’t intend to diminish him—he’s simply showing us a living, breathing human, not a museum piece. Deification equals dehumanization.
Besides the compelling character studies, the other strength of the book is the author’s decision to confine its scope to more or less the span of one year. In 1776, McCullough does not attempt to reiterate all the roots and causes of the Revolution, nor does he get into much detail about the final outcome of the war. Instead, we’re served with a thorough examination of a few face-offs between the Americans and British in Boston, New York, and New Jersey.
McCullough makes it abundantly clear that at several critical moments, we Americans got lucky, our fate hanging by the slenderest of strings. But, he adds, “Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.”
So thank your lucky stars for Lady Luck and George Washington. Without them, we would all be speaking—well, English right now.