Knowledge of the American Revolution should be a prerequisite for all Americans. However, an understanding of that conflict should not begin with McCullough’s often praised and Pulitzer Prize winning history 1776. As is often the case with works which examines something expansive like the American Revolutionary War but attempt to dissect from it a particular time period, the work becomes a fractured window rather than one which can clearly portray all the elements at work. And that is what 1776 feels like, a fractured piece of historical writing.
What really makes 1776 difficult is, quite simply, its rather bold but ultimately misleading title. The year does hold a great deal of sentimental value for most Americans, but not for any of the military accomplishments of the American forces, which were few. McCullough manages to spend very little time on the Declaration of Independence, the most momentous event of that year, instead focusing entirely on the military campaigns which, aside from Trenton at the very end of the year, were either American retreats, defeats, or non-engagements with little result. After slogging through to the end, there seems very little to be hopeful for in terms of decisive military victory for America as the end result of the conflict, and wonders why 1776 was chosen as a title for a book in the first place. In fact, much of the book deals with events in 1775 as well as the early months of 1777.
Despite all of this, 1776 is a fantastic portrayal of many of the generals on both sides of the conflict, through their correspondence with each other and their particular governments. This is most evident in McCullough’s treatment of General Washington, whose own lack of personal confidence and indecision is revealed repeatedly throughout the text. 1776, was one of the lowest points in Washington’s campaign against the British, and Washington’s correspondences are wonderfully curated to reveal his particular duress but unwavering perseverance.
It is in these character revelations that McCullough is at his best, and if your searching to better understand the minds of many of major military players in the early days of the revolution, than 1776 will do just fine. But understanding the year 1776 from a political, military, international relations, and social-economic perspective requires much further reading.