Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review of David McCullough's 1776

There’s an unfortunate tendency at work in modern history-writing to diminish heroes. This is accomplished in one of two ways. Either the writer makes normal people into heroes, because they show up for work everyday and accomplish what is expected of them, often times amidst suffering of some sort. Or the writer demonstrates (usually by accentuating their flaws) that so-called heroes were nothing of the sort.

By the measure of such historiographers there are no truly exceptional people, because everyone is exceptional. But such a notion is both intellectually and experimentally vacuous. Think about it: do you know who Mohammed Ali was? How about Lance Armstrong? Or Michael Phelps? Have you ever heard of Albert Einstein? Or Dwight Eisenhower? The existence of awards such as the Nobel Prize and the Congressional Medal of Honor very quickly demonstrates that there are, in fact, real heroes and you and I are not them.

After reading 1776, it’s easy to identify David McCullough as an exceptional, Pulitzer-prize winning historian. This volume is as close to being a page-turner as history ever gets (and I love history). The book is essentially about a real American hero by the name of George Washington; I’m sure you’ve heard of him. The author does a great job of illustrating Washington’s outstanding character qualities, neither inappropriately diminishing nor embellishing the record. The action of the book all takes place in the fateful year of 1776, though the author is unafraid to introduce earlier and later material to make his points.

Washington is presented as a noble, doggedly determined man of high character, a great leader of men who gets the big picture right. He engenders great loyalty, and is loved by enlisted men, officers, and even the politicians who tie his hands. And yet McCullough does not fall into the trap of hero worship: Washington’s flaws are exposed as readily as his truly great virtues are. He’s indecisive at bad times, terribly inconsistent (fighting for freedom while owning slaves), unremarkable as a strategist, and mistake-prone as a tactician.

And yet, for all that, Washington accomplished a task no one else could have, while juggling the micromanagement of the Continental Congress on one hand, an ill-equipped and untrained army on the other, insufficient funding, constantly expiring enlistments, and a raft of mediocre officers. Washington plays the hand that is dealt him with grace and discipline, even in the midst of terrible mistakes. He manages a war against the most powerful nation on the planet, ultimately defeating far superior forces led by superior officers. General Washington shows strokes of tactical brilliance at the most crucial times.

You walk away from this book knowing that you’ve been learning about a genuine American hero, a truly exceptional man who accomplished a virtually impossible task. If you enjoy history, particularly military history, you’ll love this book.

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