Ray Raphael: Review of David McCullough's 1776 (2005)
In Revolutionary days, when people objected to decisions made in official chambers, they made decisions of their own “out-of-chambers,” as they said at the time. Taverns, meeting houses, village greens — these became the venues of revolution. Gathering by liberty poles and liberty trees in the open air, a generation of political activists laid the groundwork for a new nation.
In recent years, many scholars have left chambers behind as well, following these rambunctious rebels and telling their stories. Popular history writers, on the other hand, have stayed indoors, standing shoulder to shoulder with those they portray as history’s leading characters. Joseph Ellis, in his best-selling Founding Brothers, makes their case: the “central players in the drama,” he claims, were “the political leaders at the center of the national story who wielded power.”
Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin — the public has purchased books on these familiar figures by the millions. Serious scholars, whose books do not always sell a thousand, grumble that this new wave of adulation, which they label “Founder Chic,” cheapens both history and our national heritage.
There is good cause for grumbling.
In an op-ed for the New York Times for July 4, 2002, David McCullough, whose book John Adams topped the charts for the better part of a year, portrayed the Founding Fathers as lonely heroes, who bucked the will of the people. “Had they been poll-driven, ‘risk-averse’ politicians gathered in Philadelphia that fateful summer of 1776,” he wrote, “ they would have scrapped the whole idea of a ‘mighty revolution.’” Ignoring the powerful popular surge for independence — highlighted by over ninety state and local declarations of independence that preceded the national document — McCullough transformed the majority of Americans into antagonists, who put brakes on the forward looking founders. The American Revolution, fought by the people in the name of popular sovereignty, becomes strangely convoluted when writers like McCullough not only neglect but denigrate the people themselves.
McCullough’s new book, 1776, seems to take a different turn. This time, he intends no disrespect to ordinary people. In his narrative of the Continental Army, from mid-1775 to early 1777, McCullough presents a wide sampling of letters and diaries of common soldiers, which he presents alongside those of their officers. Broadening his scope, his settings include military camps and battlefields, and his cast includes characters unknown to most Americans. In rhythmic prose, clear yet richly textured, he evokes powerful images of an army struggling to survive.
That is the backdrop, but it is not the main story. As the narrative proceeds, what appears at first glance to be a portrait of an army evolves into a tribute to the leadership of George Washington. Joseph Ellis, in his latest book His Excellency, calls Washington “The Foundingest Father of them all.” McCullough, in 1776, echoes this sentiment by detailing Washington’s “truly exceptional” performance at a critical juncture during his military career.
McCullough’s narrative is masterful, but the packaging is troubling. The year 1776 resonates because it marked American independence; indeed, it resonates so convincingly that there is no subtitle for this book. Yet McCullough refers to the declaring of independence, the moment of our nation’s birth, only in passing. He says nothing about what American civilians were doing during that eventful year, in which political, social, and economic life was turning topsy-turvy. Instead, he tells only the military story, zeroing in on a single, touted figure.
Military tales have their own narrative demands. To make battles into stories, authors focus on strategies, maneuvers, decisions. This means that officers assume command not only of their soldiers, but of the stories as well. They are the agents who move the plot along. Military writing, like Founder Chic, treats history from the top down, not the bottom up. We, the readers, then buy into these tales by rooting for one side. These narrative structures reinforce a very narrow view of patriotism — our nation out-competes the others — while masking a deeper patriotism, based on the American Revolution’s insistence that people must govern themselves.
Historically, McCullough’s treatment of the Continental Army is far from complete. In three hundred pages, McCullough devotes only two isolated paragraphs to the Quebec Expedition, the only major American offensive during the opening year-and-one-half of the Revolutionary War. The attack on Quebec was the largest battle between June of 1775 and August of 1776 — the bulk of the timeframe covered in his book — yet it finds no place in the narrative.
McCullough is not alone in ignoring Quebec. The notion that we started our Revolution by invading another country has always troubled American historians. But McCullough has another reason to bypass this important episode: Washington was not there, and McCullough uses Washington to drive his narrative. This too is nothing new. More than we would like, the history we tell is determined by narrative demands. The story leads, history follows.
Stories need heroes and leading characters. In 1776, we read how George Washington slept (or didn’t sleep) at troubling times. We are introduced to a supporting cast of officers, who develop relationships with each other and with Washington. We do not, however, learn much about relationships among common soldiers, and we are treated to only fleeting glimpses of their personal lives. Their characters, as individuals, do not grow or evolve. They function instead as a popular chorus. The feisty but untrained farmers-turned-soldiers serve as foils for our hero, who has to rein them in. We see them fleeing from battle at New York, as Washington braves enemy fire to rally the troops.
All this makes for a very good story but misleading history. In fact, common farmers led the way in casting off British authority back in 1774, and by the time Washington assumed command in the summer of 1775, the Continental Army had already killed more British soldiers in a single battle ( Bunker Hill) than they would at any other time. Accounts from Revolutionary days refer with touching persistence to “the body of the people,” and this body played a leading role, not a support role, during the American Revolution.
In his previous book, McCullough wrote, “John Adams, more than anyone, made it [independence] happen.” He concludes 1776 with a similar proclamation: “Without Washington’s leadership and unrelenting perseverance, the revolution almost certainly would have failed.” But without John Adams, American citizens might still have declared independence, and fighting under some other commander-in-chief, American soldiers might still have prevailed in battle. The converse is not true. Without the drive of American citizens, the bedrock of revolution, both John Adams and George Washington would have been inconsequential figures.
This fundamental truth can never be revealed by narratives that choose a single individual, or even a handful of individuals, to propel the story forward. Revolutions are not juntas. They are the work of groups who work collaboratively. The objective of the American Revolution was to root government in a collective entity, the people. Writers commit a grievous error when they place the deliberations and actions of a handful of men, our Founding Fathers, on a higher plane than the Revolution itself. They take the American Revolution, and with it the nation it created, out of the hands of the people.
This article was first published by the Baltimore Sun and is reprinted with permission of the author.
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Don McArthur-Self - 5/31/2005
The history of the United States is big enough for all of you. You seem to think that David McCullough is guilty of gross oversimplification; I don't agree, Mr. Raphaels' post tends to oversimplify in the other direction.
Of course the "farmers" of New England, in particular, were well on their way toward agitating for independence, and took the lead in armed resistance. Moreover, they succesfully bottled the British into Boston after April, 1775.
Still, the "Continental Army" of which Washington took command in the summer of 1775 was such in name only, "adopted" by Congress in recognition of the existing situation, but really only a loosley organized collection of provincial militias. That this body was able to inflict the casualties in did at Bunker (Breed's) Hill is more a testament to the impatience and overconfidence of the British command then it is to the skill or leadership of the American militia. Long-term American success came when Congressionally-commissioned leaders (Washington, Greene, Morgan, for example) managed to blend a Regular Army with the militia and irregular forces operating locally in the various colonies, use them effectively together, and tie their efforts in with French aid on land and sea.
Washington did, indeed, create and lead the Continental Army as it emerged during the war...not a militia adopted by the Congress, but a full-time, well-drilled soldiery which formed a more stable core of armed American resistance. That he personally won few battlefield victories does not significantly diminish the strategic and political importance of his leadeship throughout the war (and after); his personal presence proved highly significant at Princeton and Monmouth, and his repeated refusal to entertain throughts of dictatorship or monarchy was also critical.
I haven't had a chance to acquire "1776" yet, but I would suspect that the story of the ill-fated Quebec expedition was neglected because it was another in a string of failures that came close to killing off the Revolution during 1776, and is completely secondary to McCullough's focus...which would appear to be the successful efforts to preserve the cause and the dwindling Army in what was the main theater of operations. (By the way, the United States didn't "invade another country" in 1776, since Canada was not independent; it was one more of a chain of British colonies - essentially, the "14th" colony - which the American rebels thought must logically want to join them anyway, and British control of Canada and the St. Lawrence would obviously put the Revolution at risk.)
History is "moved" by many factors - social, economic, relgious, and be "Great Men" too. I personally doubt the American Revolution would have survived or succeeded - certainly not in all thirteen of the colonies - without the leadership provided by Washington. Even had it done so, it's hard to imagine the eventual unity of the states under a federal Consitution without his presence and the trust that Americans were willing to put into his hands BECAUSE of the example of his leadership during the war years.
David L. Waldstreicher - 5/30/2005
Could you type out your question and McCullough's answer for those of us too technically challenged to access the radio broadcast? This is an important issue - thanks for raising it.
Steve Rossiter - 5/30/2005
I asked Mr. McCullough on this very point the other day after reading another authors complaint here on the HNN.
"What's Wrong with David McCullough's Kind of History?"
WBUR out of Boston had him on their show last Friday and I managed to get through on the call-in line. The show is available as an audio archive and his response can be heard at about 36 min 10 seconds into the show.
Nathaniel Brian Bates - 5/30/2005
Relax, Professor Raphael. You BOTH write excellent histories. I like your "Yin" emphasis on the social dimension, and his "Yang" emphasis on Meat and Potatoes American history. Both of you use documents that are primary in nature, and VERY INTERESTING.
As for whether the "people" create revolutions or not. I believe that G-d ordains all of history, working through human agents when He wills. He certainly worked through George Washington and Ben Franklin, as He willed. However, there was also a broader movement at work. I do not believe in "Manifest Destiny" in the sense of excusing what happened to the Natives. I am simply saying that history has reasons that are beyond the scope of all of us, historians included. However, the historians make it INTERESTING by studying it, leaving us with delicious questions that further enlighten.
There is room for both the "great men" and "social history" schools in this endeaver. Either one are more interesting than names and dates.