Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: 1776 by David McCullough

Title: 1776
Author: David McCullough
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication Date: May 24, 2005
Source: personal purchase

Summary from Goodreads

America's most acclaimed historian presents the intricate story of the year of the birth of the United States of America. 1776 tells two gripping stories: how a group of squabbling, disparate colonies became the United States, and how the British Empire tried to stop them. A story with a cast of amazing characters from George III to George Washington, to soldiers and their families, this exhilarating book is one of the great pieces of historical narrative.  

My Review:

When I was in high school, history was not my favorite subject.  I was more of a science girl, actually.  (A close second: English.  Because READ ALL THE THINGS!)  I got high grades in history, but more because I was very good at memorizing things than because I had any actual interest in it.  I scored a 2 (out of 5) on the AP US History exam, if that gives you any frame of reference.

However, part of me always felt like I should have more interest in history...I mean, it gives us a better understanding of ourselves, doesn't it?  It's important to know from whence we came, yes?  But it was so DRY.  How could I care more about a subject that put me straight to sleep?  Where could I find a history book that would change my tune?

I heard about David McCullough several years ago, and thought that maybe his work could be the ticket.  As a historian, his books are well-researched and extremely detailed, but he also adds more of a human element to his analysis.  This sounded like it would work better for me, but I was still nervous--hence the five-ish years that this book has been on my shelf, untouched.

Thanks to Nonfiction November, I decided that it was time to dive in, and as you may have expected, my initial inclinations were correct.  Despite its high level of detail and dense text, I was engaged with this book from beginning to end.

This book is not, as I had previously thought, a history of the entire American Revolution.  It is, as I should have maybe guessed from the title, specifically focused on the events that took place in 1776 (and a little bit of 1775, for background purposes).  Once I figured that out, I thought, cool, I will get to read about how the Americans won the Revolutionary War!  And then I realized, nope, the war didn't actually end until 1783.  (Reminder: score of 2 on the AP US History test.)

In fact, 1776, despite the whole Declaration of Independence thing, was not a real banner year for Team America.  We lost a lot of battles.  Like, A LOT.  George Washington made a whole slew of bad decisions for the army.  Yet, by the end of the year, things had started to take a little swing--just enough to bring the tide back in our direction.  McCullough describes all this at great length, but rather than just a dull list of dates and places, he provides insight into the hows and whys of each event.  What was Washington thinking in the days before the Battle of Brooklyn?  Who were his most trusted allies?  What were the British expecting of the Americans before each battle--and how were they getting that intelligence?  Who was a raging drunkard, or a traitor, or a dirty coward?  These are all the intriguing little details that may have made history class more fun for me back in the day.  Plus, he tells it from both sides (British and American), so you get a fuller view of the tense situation as it continued to develop.

That's not to say that this book will be for everyone.  You do have to have some interest in the finer particulars of US history if you want to enjoy this book, otherwise you will get bogged down in the density of the text.  But if you're looking for a piece of historical nonfiction that will both educate and entertain you, 1776 is a wonderful start.  I will absolutely be checking out McCullough's backlist for more brain food!

Have you read any of McCullough's work?  Are there any other historian authors out there whose books you've enjoyed?


  1. I kind of feel like the worst history teacher for not having read any of McCullough's books, but I've always been interested. I'm glad to hear that it went well for you! I'm a crazy fan of the John Adams miniseries based on his book, so I always thought that would be one I might pick up first.

    1. Ooooh, didn't know you were a HISTORY teacher...dang, I guess I better get my history hat on! I hope I at least did you proud by loving this book! Haha.
      Yes, the John Adams book is on my list. His backlist was listed at the back of my copy of 1776, and I didn't realize how long it was! Lots to choose from.

  2. I really liked history in high school. Because history is just stories. And what does a bookworm like better than stories?

    However, I've kind of purposefully avoided non-fiction about wars. I was scarred by the long digression on the battle of Waterloo in Les Mis, and I generally dislike any movie that contains long battle scenes. There is nothing more boring than watching people hack at each other for half an hour. I kind of figured that would carry over to books, too.

    But this book sounds really good! I should try to learn more about out nation's history, and this sounds like it would be just the ticket.

    1. That is true (re: stories). Honestly, I think some of my teachers left a lot to be desired. My AP US History teacher would sit us down the day before every test, give us all the questions, and tell us that he felt it was more important for us to know the info (ie. memorize it) than have to grasp for it on test day. But in the end, all that taught me to memorize things. I didn't develop much of an interest in them.

      I promise there is not a lot of hacking in this one! :) Some battles of course, but McCullough focuses more on the tactical decision-making rather than the gruesome details.

  3. I am a major history nerd (I even minored in it in college... I didn't take the AP US History exam, but I did get a 4 on the AP European History, because, NERD.) but the majority of my historical reading tends to be historical fiction. I really ought to hit up some entertaining historical non-fiction. Sounds like 1776 is a good starting point!

    1. Yes, I think you would love it! And if you were a history nerd, I will match you as a science nerd. I passed the AP Biology AND AP Chemistry exams (5 and 3, respectively). We all have our nerdy bits! :)

  4. I share your hesitancy to take on dry history texts. But for NN this year I read three wonderful books that gave me insight into American history (One Summer: America 1927, Empty Mansions, and In the Kingdom of Ice) and now I'm ready for more! I will put 1776 on my list.

    1. Thanks for mentioning those three, I will add them to my list! (My ever-growing list...haha.)

  5. McCullough is one of those nonfiction authors I've been hearing great things about for a long time but who I haven't gotten around to reading yet. I'm glad you ended up enjoying this one :)

    1. He is an excellent historian for sure. I think I might look into John Adams next.

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