Author Talk: June 2005
In this interview David McCullough, author of 1776, explains why he chose to focus on this particular year when writing about the Revolutionary War and his decision to start the narrative in October 1775. He discusses what the book is about beyond the historical events it covers, how he conducted research for this "companion work to JOHN ADAMS," and the single event detailed in this history that he considers to be the most significant.
Question: The Revolutionary War lasted from April 1775, when the Massachusetts Minutemen engaged British troops at Lexington and Concord, until September 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed. What made you decide to focus on this particular year within that wider conflict?
David McCullough: I suppose because, as Thomas Payne said, this was the time that tried men's souls. And, of course, it's the year that marked the birth of the nation. But what we celebrate every July 4 is less than half the story. It isn't just the Declaration of Independence that's important but that this was the time when actions, too, spoke as loudly and, yes, as eloquently as words. That's the thing about George Washington. He didn't just talk like a leader, he acted like one. And that's all-important when you're leading a cause that has no unifying symbols and have men in the ranks who heartily dislike each other because of where they come from. The whole effort was continuously threatening to pull apart. And it would have were it not for Washington and those others who never lost sight of all that was at stake.
Q: As a historian what are you trying to accomplish with this book? What's your goal here?
DM: I want people to see that all-important time in a different way --- in the way it was. For a number of reasons, including the absence of photographs, we tend to see the men and women of the Revolution as not quite real. And we have far too little sense of what they suffered. Unlike the people you see in Mathew Brady's photographs from the Civil War, the men and women of the Revolution seem more like characters in a costume pageant. And it's a pageant in which the performers are all handsome as stage actors, with uniforms and dress that are always costume perfect. I want to be inside that other time. I want to convey the atmosphere of the time, what it was like to have been alive then, what the reality was for those people. I often think about how they would feel if they could read what I'm writing. I imagine them asking, "Does he get it?"
Q: You say this is essentially a companion work to JOHN ADAMS. How so?
DM: In writing JOHN ADAMS I was focusing primarily on what was happening at Independence Hall that summer of 1776. Because it was a biography of one of the protagonists, I had to keep the focus on the political drama. But I couldn't help thinking about all that was happening elsewhere that mattered in the extreme, yet was not part of Adams's story.
Q: Beyond the historical events themselves, what is this book about? How do you describe it?
DM: To a large degree it is about character. In an immediate and very human way it's about staying power on the brink of disaster. The people who make the difference are those who won't give up. It's to them that we owe so much. I hope I've conveyed what American soldiers looked like back then; that they had no uniforms; that they were dirty, hungry, poorly armed, and badly clothed; that many truly had no shoes through much of the struggle. I hope I've made it clear that they weren't all heroes; that thousands quit the fight, deserted, or went over to the enemy. Most important of all I hope I've conveyed that no one knew how things were going to turn out. All the signs were that they didn't stand a chance, that the war was over and that we had lost. It was the darkest time in the history of our country. The prospects for the United States of America never looked so bleak. But because a handful of very brave people refused to see it that way, we are the beneficiaries. Without them The Declaration of Independence would have been that only, a declaration, words on paper.
Q: As the title implies most of the action here takes place in 1776. Why did you choose to start the narrative in October 1775, in London?
DM: Because it marks an all-important moment, when King George III, in a speech to Parliament, charged the colonists with traitorous rebellion and vowed to bring them to heel. Until then Americans had been fighting for their rights as freeborn Englishmen. When Washington took command in July 1775, he thought he would be home at Mount Vernon by Christmas. Both he and Thomas Jefferson were on record that summer saying they looked forward to the time when all the unpleasantness would end and unity between Britain and America would be renewed. Well, all that changed with the King's speech. It was a turning point as clear as the advent of the New Year.
Q: Of all the events detailed in this book, which stands out in your mind as the most significant?
DM: For me the key event is the Continental Army's escape from Brooklyn after being soundly defeated in the first full-scale battle of the war. It's the Dunkirk of the Revolution, and an example of both individual character and outside forces powerfully at work. On the one hand, Washington's role in the escape was leader-ship at its best. On the other hand, circumstances beyond his or anyone's control played a part almost beyond belief. If the wind had been blowing in a different direction, the British would have been able to bring their warships up the East River and seal off any possibility of escape for Washington and his troops. The war and the chances of an independent United States of America could have ended there and then. Further, as morning approached after the night of the escape from Brooklyn, a large part of Washington's army was still waiting to embark. Without the curtain of night to conceal them, escape was doomed. But then, just as the sun was about to rise, a heavy fog rolled in and settled over the whole of Brooklyn allowing the rest of the army to get away (while over on the Manhattan side of the river there was no fog at all).
Q: The underlying theme of JOHN ADAMS was how truly improbable the Revolution seemed at the beginning. What's the underlying theme in this book?
DM: To a large degree it's very much the same. The Continental Army really wasn't an army as we think of armies. It was a pickup army, an amateur army. It was what the British General Burgoyne said, "A rabble in arms." And it was led by a 43-year-old commander-in-chief who had never led an army in battle. There was no American navy, no money. And in ultimate command was a Congress that very often had little or no understanding of what was happening.
Q: How did you go about conducting your research for this book? What sources did you draw on?
DM: The material was gathered at more than twenty-five libraries, archives, special collections, and historic sites here and in the United Kingdom. I drew on letters, diaries, memoirs, maps, orderly books, newspaper accounts --- all the usual primary sources historians work with. I also drew on many leading histories of the Revolutionary War, including three of the earliest published in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when memories were still relatively fresh and many of the principals were still alive.
Q: What do you think will most surprise readers of this book?
DM: Abigail Adams once wrote, "Posterity, who are to reap the blessings, will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and sufferings of their ancestors." Regrettably she was right. We have far too little appreciation for what her generation went through and how indebted we are to them, not because they were perfect, or superhuman, but because they were fellow human beings who didn't know themselves what they were capable of until put to the test. I think readers will be surprised that King George III was an interesting man. He was not the crazy king or dimwit often portrayed. I think they'll also be surprised that the British officers were competent and intelligent men. And I think they'll be surprised at the number of mistakes Washington made, some quite severe, and the fact that we suffered terrible defeats largely of our own doing. And finally, I think a lot of people will be surprised that at one point the fate of this country hung on the determination and physical stamina of just a few thousand men.
Q: Why is it particularly important in this day and age to understand and appreciate what happened in 1776?
DM: We're often told, and we know, that we're living in a very difficult, dangerous and uncertain time. But that's not a new experience in American life. Some have said, in the aftermath of 9/11, that this is the darkest, most perilous hour in our history. But we've been through worse and we've come through it. Further, we need to be reminded always of the ideas and ideals that this country was founded on, and never take our blessings for granted. Ingratitude is a shabby human failing. And to have no gratitude for what our forbearers went through would be a dreadful mark against us. We have a serious problem just now. We're raising kids who are historically illiterate. The more we can make our history known, and the more we ourselves can know and understand who we are and how we got to where we are, the better off the country will be in the long run.
Q: Your last two books, JOHN ADAMS and TRUMAN, both Pulitzer Prize winners, were biographies. How does it feel to return to writing a history?
DM: Biography is a form I love, and I've been very fortunate in my subjects. But history is a different milieu and it's been a great pleasure returning to it. With history you're dealing with lots of people and can shift the point of view, go off on a tangent if you like. 1776 has a large cast of characters and I hope readers get to know them. I sometimes feel I know these people better than I know people in real life. And they are all very different and knowable. That's part of the excitement of the work. They've been dead for 200 years or more, and they belonged to a very different time, a very different world, and yet you can get inside that time and world and know them quite intimately because of so much that they put down on paper. And I'll tell you, there's nothing like holding one of their letters or diaries in your own hands. There's a connection that's hard to describe. One of the most amazing feats of the war was carried out by Colonel Henry Knox, a New Englander who led an expedition from Boston to Fort Ticonderoga and back to retrieve cannons and mortars left there when American forces captured the fort earlier in 1775. To think that Knox would take time to write down what was happening is quite extraordinary, when you consider the conditions under which he was writing. This wasn't a man sitting at a desk beside a warm fire musing over the day's events. He was struggling to haul 58 mortars and cannon over rough forest roads and freezing lakes, through blizzards, thaws and mountain wilderness, and all the while dealing with constant mishaps. I have included a full size page of the diary in the book so readers may see how bad the handwriting is, and in thinking about why that might be, perhaps feel some of that direct connection.
Q: What do you want readers to get out of this book?
DM: I would hope that for a while they can feel what it was like to have been there then under those conditions with those people. I would hope that they'll have a far greater empathy and respect for them. I hope they will never forget men like Jabez Fitch, a Connecticut farmer, or Joseph Hodgkins, a Massachusetts shoemaker. I would hope they'll be less inclined ever to take for granted what such brave men did, and understand that individual character does indeed count in the long run.