1776 by David McCullough

1067I made a concerted effort to read on the bus during my commute this week and I finally finished 1776. The actual text is just under 300 pages, so it doesn’t seem like it should take all that long to read, but as it is primarily a military strategy/war book, the prose is quite dense. However, McCullough mixes up the strategy talk with snippets from diaries, letters and proclamations, taking you right to the sweltering August days in Manhattan or the frosty December nights in New Jersey. As a non-practicing historian, there were times that I was totally jealous of McCullough, just thinking about all the rich source material he got to read while piecing together this book.

And then I really thought about all the source material he had to read to piece together this book and I felt really overwhelmed. But he seamlessly weaves us in and out of His Excellency George Washington and other high-ranking officials’ thoughts and letters as well as the men (and women) digging the trenches, suffering the illnesses and walking miles on frozen ground with no shoes. It was fascinating to read about Washington’s resolve, not only in his public and private correspondence, but in his own writings. His devotion to Mount Vernon was not surprising and made me want to visit for the umpteenth time to see the fireplace he referred to in one letter, to see if the contractor had done what he asked.

Though intellectually I knew the Revolutionary War took six years and thousands died on both sides, it felt different to actually read about the ridiculous conditions that the “soldiers” (for most were just farmers or merchants with no training) endured in the slight hope that the United States might be its own country at the end. A lot of politicians like to invoke the Founding Fathers as they gear up for elections, but I wonder if they really know how close they came to losing everything, due to inexperience, indecision and the weather. The year 1776 is synonymous with the Declaration of Independence, which changed the course of history. And that year did change the course of history, but there were times when it could have gone either way, but for a shift in weather, a bit of fog or a (possibly) drunk commanding officer.

I knew the book had to wrap up as it got to December 1776, but I was desperate to read more. As a student of Civil War history, I’ve never delved much further than battles, dates and other things to regurgitate on an American history exam. This should be required reading for all Americans, especially those who invoke the persons found within to support their beliefs.

John Adams by David McCullough

2203Yes, I have finally finished this tome! It’s only taken me four and a half months of reading on and off, but I really did enjoy it. Perhaps Mr. McCullough’s only criticism could be that he likes details just a bit too much. He skillfully wove the letters, papers and diaries of Mr. Adams and his peers into the writing, but there were some things that I could have lived without. I didn’t need to know the location of every business in Philadelphia in 1775, for example. But nonetheless, it was a great look at our second President, about whom I knew comparatively little.

One final quotation, this one written to his granddaughter, Caroline:

You are not singular in your suspicions that you know but little. The longer I live, the more I read, the more patiently I think, and the more anxiously I inquire, the less I seem to know….Do justly. Love mercy. Walk humbly. This is enough….

(p. 650)

more John Adams quotes

The end of the institution, maintenance, and administration of government is to secure the existence of the body politic; to protect it; and to furnish the individuals who compose it with the power of enjoying, in safety and tranquility, their natural rights and the blessings of life; and whenever these great objects are not obtained, the people have a right to alter government, and to take measures necessary for their safety, happiness, and prosperity.

The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals. It is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. (p. 221)

These are the times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed. The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised, and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities which would otherwise lay dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman. (p. 226)

You invite me to you. You call me to follow you. The most earnest wish of my soul is to be with you – but you can scarcely form an idea of the conflict in my mind. It appears to me such an enterprise, the ocean so formidable, the quitting of my habitation and my country, leaving my children, my friends, with the idea that perhaps I may never see them again, without my husband to console and comfort me under these apprehensions – indeed, my dear friend, there are hours when I feel unequal to the trial. (Abigail – p. 291)

But let no person say what they would or would not do, since we are not judges for ourselves until circumstances call us to act. (Abigail – p. 293)

John Adams quotes

David McCullough quotes from Adams’s personal diary and papers extensively and there are many of his words that have really struck me. I want to have them all in one place for future reference.

Now to what higher object, to what greater character, can any mortal aspire than to be possessed of all this knowledge, well digested and ready at command, to assist the feeble and friendless, to discountenance the haughty and lawless, to procure redress to wrongs, the advancement of right, to assert and maintain liberty and virtue, to discourage and abolish tyranny and vice? (p. 53)

Government is a plain, simple, intelligent thing, founded in nature and reason, quite comprehensible by common sense…Let us dare to read, think, speak and write…Let us recollect it was liberty, the hope of liberty, for themselves [first settlers] and us and ours, which conquered all discouragements, dangers and trials. (p. 60-61)

When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental of touching some springs, and turning some wheels, which have had and will have such effects, I feel an awe upon my mind which is not easily described. (p. 110)

The second day of July 1776 will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the Day of Deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more. (p. 130)

Our N[ew] England people are awkward and bashful; yet they are pert, ostentatious and vain, a mixture which excites ridicule and disgust. They have not the faculty of showing themselves to best advantage, nor the act of concealment of this faculty. An art and faculty which some people possess in the highest degree. Our deficiencies in these respects are owing wholly to the little intercouse we have had with strangers, and to our inexperience in the world. These imperfections must be remedied, for New England must produce heroes, the statesmen, the philosophers, or America will be no great figure for some time. (p. 149)

I’ll continue to add to this list as I continue to read the book.