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My desire to employ a cliché to describe 1776—the year in America's past and David McCullough's new book—is almost a compulsion. But rather than succumb to some familiar phrase of praise, let me try to simply state what I think: this is the best book ever written about the most important year in the history of the modern world.
It's a truly thrilling tale of men and women who saw destiny and seized it against overwhelming odds. George Washington was every inch the hero we've always been taught, but he was also a man with doubts and even despair who endured because he was courageous, clever, and committed. He was a great general not so much because he was a great tactical commander but because he was a great judge of character. Among those he tapped for leadership was young Henry Knox, a bookseller. It was he who suggested that the cannons from Fort Ticonderoga, which had been captured by Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold, be brought down to Boston, where Washington was camped in stalemate with the Redcoats. As McCullough writes:
"That such a scheme hatched by a junior officer in his twenties who had no experience, was transmitted so directly to the supreme commander, seriously considered, and acted upon, also marked an important difference between the civilian army of the Americans and that of the British."
McCullough calls the Knox plan a “scheme,” because it was so utterly audacious as to boggle the mind. He proposed to bring 60 tons of armaments over mountains and rivers the 300 miles between upper New York and Boston. No steamboats, no railroads, just men and beasts. In the midst of an 18th-century winter it was a proposal as remarkably bold as its ultimate success was stunningly providential. It was a classic case of American faith and ingenuity, of a political-military system that assumed gallantry and encouraged inventiveness. When Knox's “noble train” of weaponry arrived in Framingham, not one gun had been lost.
Sometimes we read books because they contain essential information and sometimes we read them for the pleasure of an author's mastery of style. Read 1776 for both reasons. “Vividly elegant” is how I'd describe McCullough's prose and, as always, his data are authoritative. If your notions of 1776 are rooted in Peter Stone's Broadway musical, you need to savor David McCullough's masterly chronicle of that grand year of “the glorious cause of America.”
From his account of the Battle of Trenton (after Washington crossed the Delaware), McCullough writes that the great general asked his weary troops to re-enlist:
"Those willing to stay were asked to step forward. Drums rolled, but no one moved. Minutes passed. Then Washington 'wheeled his horse about' and spoke again.
“'My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected, but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer . . . .'”
"Again the drums rolled and this time the men began stepping forward. 'God Almighty,' wrote Nathanael Green, 'inclined their hearts to listen to the proposal and they engaged anew.'”
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