Top critical review
Surface-Level Military History
Reviewed in the United States on December 10, 2018
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I will dare to call McCullough’s 1776 a book for beginners. It’s an accessible introduction to the American Revolution, its early battles, and General Washington that is as likely to please casual readers as it is to bore amateur historians. Engrossing though 1776 may be (most readers can probably tackle it in just a few sittings), it contains no new revelations, makes no new arguments, and offers little that hasn’t already been written about in greater detail by dozens of historians.
Let me be clear: 1776 is a good book, and McCullough’s skill as a writer is undeniable. Though he quotes primary sources liberally, occasionally to the point of absurdity (for example, a passage from pages 115-116 reads: “Henry Knox and his artillery were to move ‘as speedily as possible’ by ‘the directest road thither.’ Several times Washington referred to his own ‘extreme hurry.’” Just say they had to go fast, for crying out loud…), 1776 is nevertheless a page-turner. Regrettably, though, major battles and the broader military campaigns that led to them are all McCullough tackles in 1776. The Declaration of Independence and the politics of the early Revolution are glossed over quickly in favor of the war. No doubt that’s exactly what some readers desire, but be warned that despite its title, 1776 is not a comprehensive history of America’s first year.
I’m not someone who believes “academic” history is the only history worth reading, but McCullough’s talent is his ability to package history for the masses. I want detailed endnotes and attention to the broader historical significance of the events about which I’m reading; McCullough provides only what I would call a quality review of major events. Though I wouldn’t describe my reading 1776 as time wasted, I must limit my recommendation to readers who know very little about the American Revolutionary period. I can’t think of many better places for a beginner to start, as 1776 is engaging and easy-to-read. However, I would just as strongly steer readers familiar with the period away from 1776 toward something like Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer, an academic yet captivating book that covers the same period in American history.