Monday, July 04, 2005


(David McCullough; Simon and Schuster; May, 2005)

David McCullough is famous for having chronicled famous American legends and their times. His biographies of Harry Truman (which I have read and is really brilliant) and John Adams, are both the best biographies of these important American statesmen written until now. Both these books won the Pulitzer Prize. Both accounts are as exhastively researched and meticulously detailed as biographies can get.

Now, in "1776", McCullough brings an important year in the history of western civilization to life, with vivid descriptions of events and personalities. The year that brought liberty to the United States was as remarkable a year as any. It is the sort of stuff that makes LOTR style stories a part of our consciousness, the simple and pure times when you knew what you were fighting against and could put your heart and soul in it.

The most important feature of McCullough's writing is that his accounts are as objective and balanced as they can get, and yet naturally emerge as inspirational. One of the key parts of the book concerns his treatment of King George the fifth, a monarch who has been traditionally depicted as a clumsy and thick-skinned apathetic bigot by many historians. McCullough's description of him however, makes him come across as a remarkable man, cast into the monarchy at a young age, fond of and knowledgable in the arts, music, technology, and architecture, and most surprisingly and hearteningly, a sensitive man devoted to monogamy, married to a simple and faithful wife all his life. This last trait is commendable, because having mistresses was not only tolerated at the time, but was even encouraged as a social-status symbol. George is portrayed by McCullough as a sensible and understanding king, but one who completely misjudged the resolve and dogged idealism of what he saw as his naive, unsophisticated, and obstreperous subjects on the other side of the Atlantic. This was a major flaw in his thinking, with far-reaching consequences indeed.

At the other end was the other George, George Washington. Again, McCullough's account of him is revealing. Washington did not have the political diplomacy and eloquence of a Jefferson, the wit and diplomacy of a Franklin, or the shrewd judgment of an Adams. What then made him so great? McCullough convinces us that the one trait that set Washington apart from his peers, was his unflinching bearing and personality as a born leader, a charismatic genius of a general (like Eisenhower) whose mere presence would elicit reverence from his men. As somebody said, they could make Washington out from a group of a hundred similar ranked and uniformed officers, merely by the magnificent way in which he rode his horse, and his graceful demeanor. A true soldier who had demonstrated raw bravery at a young age, Washington was but in his early thirties when he assumed command of the task force that would liberate America. The great George does live upto his reputation in these pages.

McCullough's descriptions of battles are rousing and are the heart of the book. Sullied by cold, disease, and lack of morale...and gunpowder, common and sundry Americans nevertheless pressed on in the face of the greatest military force in the world. Dorchester heights, Bunker Hill, Fort Ticonderoga, Delaware, names which have become imprinted in the minds of history buffs as the scenes of key and decisive battles, and surely not ones where the Americans clearly had the upper hand, are testaments to their will. McCullough's description of how Henry Knox smuggled gunpowder in the cold and harsh winter, that enabled the patriots to win Ticonderoga, is really inspirational. The same goes for Washington's crossing of the Delaware river.
Conditions in the camps are vividly described by him; with typhus, trench dysentery, and lice running rampant throughout, it is remarkable that the men at Boston, for example, retained their morale to stifle the British in a bottleneck noose. The one thing that kept them going was the unshatterable belief of their leaders in them and their cause, and their eternal hope and conviction that they were fighting for something that was really worth it. On the dawn of American independence, it was the blacksmith from Philadelphia, the printer from Boston, and the cobbler from New York, common men fighting with uncommon grit, estranged from their familes for an indefinite period of time, that contributed to the resurrection of lady liberty, as much as did Jefferson, Washington, and Franklin. This history is, in an unperverted way, truly the 'people's history of the United States' as Howard Zinn would call it...

I am writing this on the 229th anniversary of American Independence. Gordon Wood, in his succint and engaging 'The American Revolution: A Short History' says it very well I think. He said that the final goal of those wielders of the torch of freedom was to found a nation where "nobody would have to tip his hat to nobody else"...Is it one today?...


Blogger Sumedha said...

I'm definitely going to read this book!

Point to Ponder:
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

10:26 AM  

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