Books: 1776

Back in July, I read a blog post at First Things presenting a Scottish preacher’s perspective on the Declaration of Independence. It questions whether the “self-evident” truths the document refers to really are self-evident in any meaningful way.

Curious, I searched for other online resources regarding how the struggle for independence was viewed by its opponents. This article made claims that bothered me.

It is true that freedom is enshrined in English law, which therefore legitimised the colonists’ right to pursue independence, but only through the wishes of a majority, without which it was illegal; and the rebels were far from commanding a majority.

I had always supposed that Loyalists were few in number while the majority of the population favored independence. Yet I read here that Loyalists made up as much as 40% of the population, with the rebel leaders having the support of only about 27%, and the remaining third being those who did not want to be on the losing side and would choose their allegiance based on who seemed more likely to win.

Unfortunately, neither of these articles provides any easy way to verify their claims. They provide a link to a short bibliography but lack citations to specific passages. So I kept looking for more information, and came across an article that gives an extensive explanation (with footnotes) what is wrong with the myth that only a minority supported the Revolution.

On the whole, that explanation seemed pretty convincing, but I realize I could be biased by wanting to believe that my country was founded by men of noble principles rather than thugs. I was particularly bothered by accounts of the atrocities committed against Loyalists simply because of their loyalty to the British Crown. This page provides descriptions of their experiences in their own words.

Of course, war often brings out the worst in people. And the article (about the “minority myth”) claims that terror was used relatively selectively by the American patriots, and indiscriminately by the British and Loyalists. That does not excuse any of the atrocities committed – by either side – but can help put things into perspective.

I started looking for printed materials – with extensive notes and bibliographies that I could look up if I had the time and inclination. (I am somewhat short on both, but the existence of such documentation gives me more confidence that someone else has already done that checking.) Working at a college, I found a number of books available in the library about the Revolutionary War, but most looked pretty daunting in their length and/or writing style.

David McCullough’s 1776, on the other hand, is the sort of book I felt I could read without being required to do so for a history course, and I had read plenty of good reviews about McCullough’s work (not sure how many were about this specific book). Even so, I didn’t manage to finish it before I had to return it to the library – but then, I didn’t try really hard to do so after I discovered a copy on one of our bookshelves at home.

I was fascinated at the beginning, where British leaders argue about how to deal with the situation in America. That was part of what I was looking for, the British perspective on things. In later chapters, there were some sections describing the situation from the British point of view, but most of the book was from the perspective of Washington and men who served under him.

It was still very interesting, though, providing details of how events unfolded. In the past I have read little American history outside of what I learned in school, perhaps thinking that I was already fairly familiar with the topic. But the history I learned in school, at least in regard to wars, was generally limited to who was fighting and why, some of the major battles, and the results of the war.

In 1776 you learn details about how men spent their time while waiting for the fighting to start – and how much of the time during the war was spent waiting, with relatively little time spent actually engaged in battle. You learn about disagreements among the generals about what to do (whether to attack, where to attack). You read men’s letters to their families. You read a lot of details that seem relatively unimportant to the course of the war, but they give a sense of what life was like and what people were like.

Some of the less positive reader reviews on amazon.com critique the book as being disjointed, lacking detail or having too much detail, or being confusing in terms of whether one is supposed to see George Washington in a positive light or not. If one is trying to understand the events in terms of their military significance, the choice of details would seem odd. And I did wish there had been more discussion of the events and ideas leading up to the events described in this book.

But by the time I finished, I concluded that McCullough was not trying to give an overview of the battles from a military perspective, or an evaluation of Washington either as a general or a person. Rather, I think he is painting a picture of how close to failure the revolution was throughout that period, and the importance of persistence in the face of certain hardship and likely defeat.

The sort of history I learned in school tended to simplify complex events – understandably so, to a certain extent. Teachers only have so much time to teach history, and there is a trade-off between covering the material in depth and covering a broader range of historical events. (I can’t help wondering, though, if students wouldn’t actually learn – and remember – more if they studied fewer events but in greater depth.)

I remember learning that the British army was larger, better trained and better supplied. I remember the weather being a factor but only in regards to the terrible cold during the winter at Valley Forge. I got the impression – whether the books or teachers said so explicitly or not – that the primary advantages of the Continental Army were that they were fighting for  principles rather than because it was their job to fight, and that they took a more innovative approach to battle rather than just doing things the way armies always did them.

1776 gives a much fuller picture of the conflict on both sides. The fortunes of the Continental Army went up and down based on a large number of factors – good or bad decisions made by Washington and his generals, good or bad decisions made by the British generals, the weather, availability of guns and ammunition (including the all-important gunpowder), how much the local population favored one side or the other, whether the geography of the area gave the British a significant advantage due to their naval force, sickness, money to pay the soldiers, and more.

The book goes through the events from about October 1775 to January 1777, showing in detail how all those many factors brought Washington and his men into and through battles with varying consequences. Washington’s poor decisions – or outright indecisiveness – are pointed out clearly, but so is his ability to lead men by giving them the image of a man they can trust to lead them. (I knew previously about his emphasis on his image, from research I did for a speech about him in Toastmasters back in June.)

We know how the story ended, so there is of course no wondering how the whole thing turns out. But at any given point, it’s highly uncertain how things will turn out in the short term for the armies. It’s interesting to see how factors such as a key general getting sick, a bad storm, the excitement generated by a small success, or lack of good intelligence about enemy activity affect the outcome.

One thing I was looking for was to get an impression of how the men fighting for independence felt about what they were doing. How much did high moral principles motivate them versus political or financial considerations, or fear of retaliation by those in power (on either side)? No doubt McCullough had a great volume of materials to draw from and could choose those that best reflected the view he wanted to present. But on the whole, I got the impression that the men on Washington’s side were fighting for a cause they truly believed in, just as I was taught back in school.

Of course, so were many on the British side. Loyalists were fighting for their own country also, from their point of view. They were no doubt motivated by fear of what might happen to them if the British lost, but there seem to be many who had chosen the Loyalist side to begin with out of a genuine sense of loyalty to the British crown and a view of the rebels as lawless thugs.

At some point I think I would like to read more on this subject. But first I have to find another good book to read about it. And finish some much lighter reading of books I have requested from the library and will pick up today.

One Response to Books: 1776

  1. modestypress says:

    Earlier this year, my wife and I tool a train trip across Canada (to visit relatives in Maine and nearby). We had to “detrain” and rent a car to drive through Nova Scotia and stopped a small towns with a lot of history such as Halifax. Historical monuments honored people Americans called traitors and loyalists; it wasn’t too difficult to realize we were in an area where George Washington was regarded more as a war criminal than a hero. I attended a guided tour; once the guide realized I was a “United Statesian” hiding in the mostly Canadian crowd, he was very polite to me. The economy of Eastern Canada is rather in the dumps; instead of an “ugly American,” I was regarded as a perhaps (not actually) rich American with many bucks of American or Canadian currency to spread around. We spent a little; and dialed 911 (which works just as it does in the US) when an elderly shopkeepeer collapsed in front of us in her store.

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