Book Short: 1776 by David McCullough

"Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages." – George Washington

1776 is a magical book — but I’m hardly the first person to say this. McCullough does a stellar job at recounting the events of 1776 and the dire straits Americans found themselves in when fighting for independence from the British.

We get good glimpses of Washington the leader: delegating responsibility when he sees brilliance in his deputies (like Gen. Knox), being brutally honest with himself ("Seeing things as they were and not as he wished them to be was one of his salient strengths") but relentlessly upbeat to the people underneath him, and of course, never throwing in the towel. (For more I’ll have to check out His Excellency by Joseph Ellis.)

One side note on studying history: While I could never get into U.S. history in school in the chronological format (see: my dismal AP score), I have gotten engaged as I pursue it self-directedly in the spirit of a mind-map. In other words, I picked the most interesting period (revolutionary war) and now will emanate from there, pursuing tangents and preceding and subsequent events and eventually I hope to coalesce a complete picture around my revolutionary war starting point. An interesting difference in approaching the material…

1776 is accessible and fun — a must-read for anyone interested in U.S. history or in simply a defining year in the creation of a new country.

5 comments on “Book Short: 1776 by David McCullough
  • I found myself incredibly bored by history and geography in school. It was a huge gap in my knowledge, largely because of the way it was taught. But then I started traveling and reading the New York Times, and now I have a much better grasp on how the world works. I don’t read history books specifically but if I come across something I don’t know, I look it up. I don’t know specific names/dates/orders of succession, etc. but this approach has been much more effective for me than any class ever was.

    The book Gravity’s Rainbow can teach you a lot about WWII if you bother to look all the references up (and there are a staggering amount!)

  • I hope they’re not still forcing students to memorize historical dates.

    I was one of those hated persons who simply remembered perfectly useless information without trying–like the year Constantinople (Istanbul) fell to the Turks (1453).

    But it’s nonsensical and counterproductive to try to cultivate a passion for history in young people by focusing on calendar dates.

    I would say, though, that any U.S. fifth-grader should know what centuries the Revolutionary War and the War Between the States happened.

    He should also know that the 18th century was the 1700’s, and that the 19th century was the 1800’s.

    The truth is, though, that knowing who the hell Pericles was, and when he lived, has endured me to Greek restaurateurs.

    And I just love souvlaki.

  • It’s a little long and perhaps overly dense, but Kevin Phillip’s “The Cousin’s Wars” shows how a single intellectual and political flow through the English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the American Civil War.

  • I agree wholeheartedly with your criticism of the fact (not narrative) heavy and chronological history taught in schools. History is nothing more than life through time; what a shame that most experience it as arid data.

    If you want to stay with the American Revolution, a long but mind-boggling account is Gordon Wood’s The Creation of the American Republic. At first it seems forbodingly academic, owing to its heavy use of original sources. But before too long, those original sources bring the period to life. And the resulting mosaic of the factions and ideas that spawned the Revolution, and then produced a Constitution that enacted much that the colonists rebelled against, is astonishing. It will populate your mental map with the intellectual tensions that have driven (and still drive) American history. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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