Book Summary: 1776 By David McCullough

1776 was the key year of the American's fight for independence and this book portrays all the struggles of the war in a very crude and real way
Published: January 18, 2023 Reading Time: 6 minutes

3 Quotes from the Book

Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages. – General George Washington Favorites

“Neither glory nor extent of territory, but a defense of all that is dear and valuable in life” - General George Washington when asked about the cause for the fight for independence.

“The eyes of all America are upon us. As we play our part posterity will bless or curse us.” – Henry Knox


Central to the plot of the book and the fate of the early war, 1776 is a book about Washington. It is not a biography because McCullough spares us the minute details of Washington’s entire life, but it is a character biography. Washington is portrayed as a full human being, a flawed character with many insecurities. McCullough writes:

He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. At several crucial moments he had shown marked indecisiveness. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up. (Page 293) Stoicism

That he was not many of the things a man of his social status would have been expected to be was due to his almost " poor" (by the standards of his age for white people) upbringing. He had little education, “only seven or eight years of schooling by private tutor, no training in Latin or Greek or law, as had so many prominent Virginia patriots” so, if he was ever to raise to be who History knows him being, he would need to learn by himself by restoring to experience and books.

The great teacher for Washington was experience

He learned steadily from experience and was an avid reader. He read poetry and theater, his favorite being the play * Cato* by Joseph Addison. Reportedly, his favorite quote was

"‘Tis not in mortal to command success, but we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it."

A “do more, in spite of everything” attitude was key to Washington’s success. Despite normal insecurities and almost despair during crucial times of the early war, Washington “was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair”.

He was, in fact, a true stoic of his day and he seemed to be fueled by adversity and thrive in it as many accounts of those close to him report:

Abigail Adams wrote to her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I am apt to think that our later misfortunes have called out the hidden excellencies of our commander-in-chief.” “‘Affliction is the good man’s shining time.'” she wrote, quoting a favorite line from the English poet Edward Young.

Out of adversity he seemed to draw greater energy and determination. “His Excellency George Washington,” wrote Greene later, “never appeared to so much advantage as in the hour of distress.”

Books are how we learn from the experience of others

1776 was a year that saw other self-educated Americans raise to the occasion. In an age where books were the ultimate teachers, many of the “Sons of Liberty” used books as their main teachers.

McCullough tells us that a prime example of this “learn virtually anything from books” spirit was Nathanael Greene who with little experience in war would become on of Washington’s closest and most trusted officers.

And there is also Henry Knox, chief of artillery in most of Washington’s campaigns, who

“went to work to help support his mother, and was thus, like Nathanael Greene, almost entirely self-educated. He became a bookseller, eventually opening his own London Book Store on Cornhill Street, offering a “large and very elegant assortment”, of the latest books and magazines from London.”

Another great example of books are useful even in war comes from Rufus Putnam, “a farmer and surveyor in normal times” who proposed and executed the idea of fortifying the Heights of Dorchester by manufacturing the fortifications " elsewhere out of sight" and then " with massed manpower and oxen" haul them in place along with heavy cannons at night " where all would have to be in place ande ready for action before daylight." This feat work tremendously and was all the more impressive because Putnam had never done it before, he “had suggested the idea after seeing an unfamiliar term in a text on artillery, Muller’s Field Engineer by a British professor named John Muller”.

Two very different armies

Nothing is more striking in McCullough’s depiction of the first year of the war than the marked differences between the British and American armies.

The British was a professional army, used to spread the King’s wishes around the world. While the Americans were " filthy", disorganized and some of them needed “inordinate quantities of rum” every day (reports mention that the New England army consumed around a bottle per day per man), the British “were in excellent health, in striking contrast to the reports of rampant illness among the rebels.”

Washington knew and was bothered about this stark difference between the armies. He fought hard with Congress to get better pay for his army and, end short-term enlistments, and get “adequate clothing and blankets, plus the promise of free land” with the hope of creating a professional army.

Stories from the war also describe a cruel British army. While the Americans were fighting for their freedom, few could understand the motivation of the British army:

When I look down and see the prodigious fleet they have collected, the preparations they have made, and consider the vast expenses incurred, I cannot help being astonished that a people should come 3,000 miles at such risk, trouble and expense to rob, plunder and destroy another people because they will not lay their lives and fortunes at their feet.

And yet, the Americans had land advantage. They are at home, their motivation was freedom. The British were far away from their land in unfamiliar territory. McCullough writes: “Winter in America was a trial British soldiers could never get used to, any more than they could adjust to the incessant clamor of frogs on spring nights or American mosquitoes or the absence of decent beer.”

But perhaps the biggest difference, the one that marked the fate of the war was that American soldiers were optimistic about the fate of the war. “I never spent a thought about numbers. The Americans were invincible in my opinion” reads an account by a young Connecticut recruit. And all the men were used to hard work and harsh climate: “It was an army of men accustomed to hard work, hard work being the common lot. They were familiar with adversity and making do in a harsh climate.”