Thursday, August 04, 2005

1776

In a comment to a previous post Gretchen mentioned that she finished 1776 by David McCollough believing that it was a book that every American should read. After finishing the book myself, I can only agree. History books and newspaper timelines almost make the events seem dry, pre-ordained, and inevitable. McCollough’s strength is approaching original source material and weaving it together in ways that bring the players, places and events to remarkable life.

At a time when the U.S. seems so firmly established, if not permanent, it is remarkable to think about the precariousness – even the unlikelihood that the Continental Army survived 1776.

The heroes of 1776 included men with no military training, who left family behind to fight for a cause for which there was no guarantee of success and uncertain (and often zero) pay. They were lead by General that had never led an army of any kind in battle. At the start, their cause was uncertain even ambiguous, as the commitment to Independence was not firmly established until the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4.

For the Continental Army, success, and ultimately the existence of the United States seemed to come from unlikely sources even coincidence:

  • Henry Knox, a bookseller, whose scheme to march the abandoned guns from Fort Ticonderoga in upstate New York to Boston in winter chased the British out of Boston.
  • A fortuitous fog gave the Continental Army precious extra time to evacuate Brooklyn.
  • A mysterious fire that virtually destroyed New York City after it had been abandoned for the British.
  • A British Army, perhaps gun shy from Bunker Hill, that always seemed to let up when an extra small push might have meant the end of the Continental Army.

I also had fun reading the descriptions of the places, particularly those in and around New York City. It’s fun to think that some of the place names like “Throgs Neck” have survived to this day. It’s downright difficult to imagine the area as anything other than the massive city that it is today and I look forward to looking for some of the landmarks in the book on my next visit to NYC.

Finally, it was also fun to try and spot threads from the book that carry down to American life in the present day. Easy to spot is the divisiveness and distrust between the New Englanders and the Southerners that already foreshadowed the Civil War and carries through to the politics of today. Some of the success of the Continental Army was built on the type of entrepreneurial behavior and independent thinking that has become part of the American myth. The Continental Army was always concerned that the Continental Congress was not providing them with enough supplies. George Washington seems like a guy who would have really liked The Home Depot.

I think the thing that stays with me the most from this book, however, is the “wow” of seeing how easily the Americans could have lost and the incredible persistence of George Washington and the Continental Army. Whether you believe in fate, luck or divine providence, victory seems like it was one of the least likely outcomes, and makes the success of the US that followed all the more astonishing.

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