Sep 28, 2020 in Literature

1776 by David McCullough

In this famous book titled 1776 David McCullough tells about the battles that happened in the midst of the Revolutionary War between 1775 and 1777. It was the year when the Declaration of Independence was accepted by the Congress. However it was not an easy year. There was no apparent victorious trend for the Americans. As the book shows, during the year 1776 the outcome of the war was unpredictable, and there were considerable chances to lose the country to the Great Britain. The reasons why the Continental Army succeeded, as McCullough points out, were numerous and various, and often the weather conditions, the personal oddities or strengths of particular people and groups, and other circumstances had the deciding and at times miraculous influence on the outcomes. The key figure in that war was George Washington, the commander in chief of the Continental Army. His personality and his character played a significant role in the War for Independence. This essay aims to explore some of General Washington’s personal qualities of a leader, and attempts to show and prove that three particular qualities, such as perseverance, acumen and optimism, were especially critical to the Americans’ success.


Due to the fact that the book focuses on the year 1776 only and not on the war in general, it provides a more detailed insight into the individual events, battles, decisions, and leaders behind these decisions. As a consequence of such storytelling, we, the readers, can get a realistic and humane impression about George Washington. McCullough achieves that by revealing the evidence about the General’s thoughts and behavior during the year 1776 without attempting to flatten out and adjust what is sometimes contradictory and conflicting information. One the one hand, there is the General George Washington who is an outstanding leader, the deified man of high spirits and virtual beliefs. One the other hand, he is the man with no or little experience in war leadership, fighting with self-doubt and indecisiveness, leaving the battlefields of Fort Washington and Brooklyn with tragic results. As Washington’s troops lose ground and retreat, some of his allies and commanders, General Lee and Reed, tend to run out of credit for the chief commander.

The moment of the book when the image of George Washington is the most heroic and his most applauded qualities are in the limelight is the tricky and delightful victory of the Continental Army over the Hessians at Trenton. McCullough creates a passionate and lively picture of that early winter morning. While the armies expected a call to retreat, George Washington roused the people to fight, and introduced an ingenious maneuver that brought the Army from disappointment and chaos to one of the greatest victories.  This was the moment where his perseverance dictated a necessity to look for an opportunity to avoid retreat; his acumen provided a victorious tactical idea; his optimism gave him the courage to risk and to rouse the people despite the catastrophic consequences that that battle could have possibly had.

Washington had no illusions about the real condition of the Continental Army. One of the sources that McCullough provides in the book is correspondence. From there we find out that Washington was dissatisfied with the New England troops, and even more so – he had an antipathy for them. Washington had to constantly keep them from fleeing. It is important to point out, that McCullough does not attempt to analyze the personality of General George Washington, at least not as much as popular literature on the subject usually does. Instead, he quotes a lot of primary sources, handing over the rough and uncensored evidence of those. These sources demonstrate how opposing Washington’s thoughts sometimes were. These sources include correspondence, which was already mentioned in in relation to General’s unfavorable thinking of the New Englanders, articles, speeches, magazines, etc. If we analyze them, we will face a lack of integrity. However, if we leave this task for the researchers of human psychology, and instead focus on George Washington’s decisions and actions, we will see that he was naturally ingenious at putting these things together and coming up with the best solution. It is one of the many manifestations of Washington’s acumen, and the one that helped him to devise some of the best maneuvers during the war. 

Whenever the British army made their steps and succeeded, Washington came up with a new idea. He took the heights of Dorchester in one night, located his New England militia and artillery there, and the British army was forced to flee from Boston. The British Fleet would then come back with more power; their force was incomparably stronger than the one that the Continental Army possessed. That was the moment when the British captured Fort Washington, and had an opportunity to finish the war. However, George Washington neither surrenders, nor goes into a hopeless fight, but within one night brilliantly escapes and saves the army. 

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In December 1776, the Continental Army and the idea of Independent America appeared on the verge of failure. Nevertheless, George Washington successfully initiated the well-known crossing of the Delaware and captured Trenton, inflicting a critical defeat on the British army and its Hessian troops. These and subsequent events show that although George Washington might not have been a brilliant strategist, he however possessed a natural brilliance, an ability to evaluate the circumstances of any situation and chose the best solution and the best fitted people for it. And when he made a mistake, he immediately learned from it. 

McCullough’s book gives one more valuable evidence in support of Washington’s outstanding acumen, and that is his ability to see the potential in his people. It is a striking fact that both Nathaniel Green and Henry Knox, two of Washington’s key officers, were in mid-twenties in 1776. While the British officers were all proficient and experienced veterans of war, George Washington’s officers were mostly young people with no military background whose leadership skills and ability he predicted unerringly. General Green was a fond reader, and he used the knowledge from the books to develop victorious strategies from start to finish. Knox proved to be a great commander of artillery corps. The history would be different without them, and they would not have applied their talents unless George Washington was as clear-sighted and acute as he was. 

The perseverance and acumen of Washington, thus, were critical for the outcome of the war. Still, none of these would be so, unless the outrageous optimism of the General. McCullough puts it straight, that the British army was in all possible ways stronger than the Continental Army, and sometimes it was some sort of luck or miracle that helped Washington to succeed. When his army was defeated at Brooklyn Heights, the retrieve would not have been possible if a dense fog had not hidden the retrieving troops from the British. Washington was aware how important luck might be, and he was optimistic enough to rely on it. As he wrote, “We should rather exert ourselves, and look forward with hopes, that some lucky chance may yet turn up in our favor”. 

This essay has considered some qualities of George Washington that were critical for the outcome of the War for Independence. Drawing on the evidence provided by McCullough in his popular work 1776, I have made an emphasis on Washington’s perseverance, acumen, and optimism. Perseverance gave Washington the courage and the willingness to keep on the war despite the strength of the British. His acumen gave rise to smart decisions and understanding of human resources. And at the same time, his optimism helped the Continental use some opportunities that depended fully on the game of luck.  


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