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1776 by David McCullough

April 21, 2015


The birth of America is taught to children so early that we tend to not only simplify it, but to mythologize it as well. Paul Revere, John Adams and George Washington become legends, no more real than Paul Bunyan, Johnny Appleseed or John Henry. And while our founding fathers may deserve some reverence, we do them a disservice when we deify them. The founding of the country becomes something we take for granted, as if it was predestined, a natural turn in the river of history. What makes 1776 such an effective telling of the early days of the American Revolution is that David McCullough dispenses with mythology. He injects reality and texture into the events, breathes life into the characters, and delivers a vivid telling of the early days of the war.

This is the first book I’ve read about the American Revolution since high school. It is a good starting point—chronologically, it is the start of the war, but also McCullough is selective in his scope. Rather than tell every story of the period, he focuses on a few illustrative moments so that we see a clear picture of the difficult decisions the leaders faced in their most uncertain moments. Under miserable conditions, outnumbered and outmatched in every way, the leaders of the American Revolution were able to compel through grit and willpower a guerilla army of mostly untrained, unprepared and under-resourced settlers. We see how the heroes of the Revolution—George Washington most prominently, but others as well—earned their legendary status by not just leading an army, but by creating and compelling men to fight as a unified force, bound not by common banner but by a shared ideology.

The most striking aspect of the story is just how unlikely victory was for the Americans. As much as we take the United States for granted today, without the courage, leadership and luck of 1776, it may never have existed.

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