The only thing better than a David McCullough book is having David McCullough read a David McCullough book. That’s the way things ought to be. If I could get McCullough to read this blog post right now you would actually be captivated and interested (think about that?). You would want to turn down the lights and turn up the stereo and play a melancholy violin in the background, nothing too weepy, but just enough to break into the moment with a touch of nostalgia for nobler times. It would go something like this…
“On the second day of June, 2009 Adam Omelianchuk wrote in his diary that he was profoundly moved and inspired by the efforts and courage of the Continental Army lead by his Excellency General George Washington. The rag tag outfit was composed mostly of sick and elderly men, many of them stricken with dysentery, some of them too young or too weak to fire a musket, and some of them without muskets at all. Washington’s men numbered about 20,000, but only half were fit for duty. On the other side of the lines stood General Howe’s red-coats, well trained and well-equipped, with the world’s most superior naval force at hand. How the rebels were to overcome such odds with their inexperienced leader and unprofessional soldiers would leave the young blogger stupefied wishing the book was twice as long with twice as much detail. At the end of his entry he wrote, “Never before has Providence availed me such a glorious opportunity to observe such a glorious history. My life has breathed in a larger purpose. My lungs are filled with life, liberty, and the dream of independence…”
Or something like that.
McCullough’s 1776 was my choice for an audio book on Rebecca and I’s vacation to Seattle and Portland (see Peter’s reasoned and thoughtful review here). It was especially gratifying to drive through winding roads of the Oregon coast with McCullough’s baritone vocals sounding through the Chrysler PT Cruiser while Rebecca’s eyes glazed over and fell to the comforts of sleep. Some history major she turned out to be. But I stayed true to the cause. Unlike my deserter girlfriend, I bore the cold weather and the long march without the advantages of shoes. The thought of joining the likes of those dreadful loyalists and their Torey sympathies was too much to bear. I would rather freeze to death or die at the tip of a Hessian bayonet than suffer one peaceful day under the tyranny of King George…
All kidding aside, McCullough painted a vivid picture of a very troubled time in American history. No polished romance or naive sentimentalism for American beginnings is entertained as he unflinchingly shows how weak and flawed the rebels—and they were rebels in the most definitive sense of the word— were in their approach to the war. Meticulous attention to eye witness accounts governs the story, and ample quotations from letters of the day, filled with fine poetry and prose, are the book’s enduring strength.
What emerges in the grand narrative is the upstanding character of George Washington, his indecisiveness in battle, his despair over his failing army, his outrage at the men’s lack of discipline, and his perseverance to provide leadership at the most desperate of times. Experience would prove to be Washington’s best teacher as he learned from his failures and carried on with the little he had to make a surprise attack on Christmas Day. McCullough’s telling of the crossing of the Delaware River is the book’s high point, and makes the mythical painting seem all the more historic.
I didn’t finish the book until Memorial Day, but as I was nearing the end, I realized I probably would have signed General Howe’s Proclamation that promised pardon to anyone willing to sign allegiance to King George and his Majesty’s Empire. By the end of 1776, the war was going badly for the Americans. Washington had suffered three humiliating defeats, Philadelphia was evacuated, and the Continental Army was deserting in droves. The fact that Washington fought on, and somehow inspired his troops to follow him was nothing short of miraculous. His daring attack across the Delaware was a turning point for the army and a nation who found some hope in repelling their invaders.
On days like Memorial Day and the upcoming Independence Day it is always good to place oneself in the times of history where our nation was struggling for its life and wonder what one would do. I for one am glad that there were men larger than I who took on those purposes. It’s a good thing to be an American.