“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” Thomas Jefferson (Declaration of Independence)
The immortal words of Thomas Jefferson ring out in the history of the United States and the American landscape ever since their first bursting onto the scene July 4, 1776. Presidents and politicians routinely invoke the Declaration to defend whatever political position they are espousing. Abraham Lincoln, no slouch in his own right when it came to writing, summoned the Declaration’s sentiments in his Gettysburg Address, which was a precursor to the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all of the slaves in the United States. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted the declaration in his “I Have a Dream” speech, citing the portion of the Declaration that “all men are created equal,” as America’s creed. While most people now routinely believe and espouse the ideas set forth in the Declaration, historically, up until its publication, these ideas were antithetical to any government that hitherto had existed. The idea, that Government was instituted for the benefit of its citizens, and that people by their very nature were free, was a foreign concept to that point in world history.
What if this Declaration with its ideas of self-governance and freedom were never written? What if it were never needed? What if the American citizens of the British Empire had decided that they were better off under the protection of Mother England? While it may seem ludicrous to consider that any of these possibilities could have happened, it is hard to place one’s self in the position of the peoples back in that time. As of the start of 1776, while war had broken out, the hostilities were mostly limited; and the possibility for reconciliation was still within the people’s grasp. What then drove these people and these events to promote the cause of liberty? What happened in 1776 to irrevocably shape the history of the modern world?
While it is very easy to develop certain beliefs about the reasons for the events during this critical time during American history, as people often note that history is written by the victors, David McCullough, in his book 1776 develops a thorough, balanced, and often moving account of the thoughts and feelings of not only the American Revolutionaries, but their British parliamentarian and monarchal counterparts. Taking the reader from the stirrings of Revolution right up to the precipice of the Declaration and then to its aftermath, McCullough focuses his eye towards the intricacies of the individuals involved in this historic conflict. The summer of 1776 was a very active and prominent one, moving the cause of freedom from the back burner to the very forefront of America’s mind and consciousness. Troubled by the seeming indifference to the struggles and issues of the colonists by King George III of England, American “Patriots” banded together to accomplish what few in the modern world had done up to that time, establish Independence from the people that had conquered, nurtured, and developed the land into a very successful and profitable enterprise.
From the appointing of General Washington by the Continental Congress and the banding together of militias to form the American army to the British disdain for the colonists and their firm belief that as the children of the British Empire the colonists should be accepting of their authority given the provisions that the empire supplied these people with, McCullough takes a nuanced look at the various factions and their reasons for doing what they did. Small details such as Washington’s claim that he took on the command of the army reluctantly, while attending the meeting in which the Congress made that request, in full military regalia, portray a commander who may not have been as reluctant to join the cause as he has made it seem. McCullough also wishes to balance the colonial portrayal of the King as greedy, selfish, and ostentatious with what his reign was actually characterized by: his lack of desire for all things ornate or gaudy. It further displayed the balancing act the King had to make between his desire to live a low key life, with the expectations of his subjects and their desire to have their king look and act the part of a royal, not to be cowed by any upstart group of individuals across the ocean. These little details sewn together in a tapestry comprise a story that is both fascinating and insightful.
What is great about 1776, the novel by David McCullough? Just about everything. Not only do you get wonderful historical context and accuracy, but the plethora of ways you can read it adds to its beauty as a must-have part of any historical collection of non-fiction. You can obtain the material in multiple platforms. First there is the beauty of the simple work itself, which is eminently readable, and gives a nice timeline and context to an understanding of the history of the American Revolution. Second, you can always pick up the larger coffee table edition. In it there are beautiful pictures and illustrations to go along with the fascinating story. Furthermore, there are additional letters and correspondence that one can read to give a larger context with the story that McCullough is trying to weave. And finally, if that is not enough, one can pick up the audio book narrated by McCullough himself. And as anyone who has watched the Civil War (dvd), by Kenneth Burns, and also narrated by McCullough, can attest, McCullough’s reading can be both insightful and emotional, full of thoughtful commentary and depth. With such wonderful ways to experience this story, the beginning of the American experiment, 1776 is a must read for history buffs and laymen alike.