Review of David McCullough’s 1776 by Rick Fisk
The Imperfect Hero: 1776 – A Review
All men are flawed and make mistakes. Character is that quality in a man that transcends his flaws and propels him to success. In reading David McCullough’s 1776, one will become intimate with George Washington’s flaws and mistakes, flaws which might have been glossed over by historians more inclined to fuel legend than deeper understanding. Yet, because McCullough reveals so much of Washington’s error, the accomplishments and character of America’s first Commander in Chief are all the more astonishing than any legend.
Through priceless, archived correspondence of English and American soldiers, historians, reporters, and civilians (Washington, John Hancock, Abigail Adams and others too numerous to list here), McCullough weaves a complex tale, rich in detail, reading like a novel too good to lay aside.
Washington was prone to indecision. Probably this was partly due to a lack of experience. His lack of education – Washington hadn’t the Ivy League education peers like Jefferson had (William and Mary’s), nor the Eton schooling of his English counterparts – was also a likely factor which stifled confidence and led him to doubt himself. His indecision led him to make serious errors which cost many hundreds of lives. If one wanted to sit in judgement, one could condemn him on his defeat at Brooklyn alone, but it would be a grave disservice to the man. That’s because all men are more than their mistakes. Judging any man by his mistakes only, isn’t just a disservice to the man, but to oneself.
Washington’s strengths included perseverance and a determination never to overestimate the true state of his affairs. He didn’t sugarcoat the nature of what he faced or the condition of his army at any time. Because of his honesty, the Continental Congress granted him a dictatorship December 27th of 1776. The letter bringing him the news stated that he could “safely be entrusted with the most unlimited power, and neither personal security, liberty, nor property be in the least degree endangered thereby.”
The book closes its tale after the new year, 1777, so we don’t get the story told in another history book that the Congress was correct to place its trust in Washington. In a barn outside Philadelphia, shortly after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Washington met with his top officers and announced his intention relinquish his dictatorship, thereby derailing their plans to militarily seize control of the government and hold it hostage for their unpaid wages.
Before Washington’s embarrassing defeats in Brooklyn and at Fort Washington, Nathaniel Greene wrote to his wife, “He will be the deliverer of his own country.”
George Washington, a flawed, (formally) uneducated man, persevered and overcame his mistakes and was indeed the deliverer of his own country. Had he been judged harshly, the course of history would likely have been much different.
History has been kind to Washington. In bringing Washington’s flaws to light, McCullough does us a tremendous favor, and in beautiful prose no less, showing the complete person. I came to the end of the book convinced that history had been kind, but rightly so.
Rick Fisk, TDCJ