Friday, July 04, 2008

A Fresh Look At 1776- The Great American Revolution

This year marks the 232th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. A lot has gone wrong with the promise presented by that document and the revolution that went with it but we nevertheless justly still commemorate that event today. The point is to take that history out of the hands of the sunshine patriots who have appropriated it- and by the look of things - we better make it pronto.


1776, David McCullough, Simon&Schuster, New York, 2005

Regular readers of this space will recognize that I spend a fair amount of time discussing the lessons of, or looking at specific aspects of, the three great European revolutions- the English, French and the Russian. I have also given a fair amount of space to the grandeur of the American Civil War. I have, in contrast, tended to give short shrift to the virtues of the American Revolution. This is flat out wrong. Thus, over the past couple of years I have tried to rectify that slight by increasing the amount of space given over to various aspects of the American Revolution, mainly biographic sketches. Today I continue that shift with a review of the well-known historian and documentary narrator David McCullough’s 1776.

Part of the reason for selecting Mr. McCullough’s work is the personal need to go over again the specifics of the revolutionary period. You know, the battle of this or that, or some military operation led by whomever. However, the more pressing reason is that Mr. McCullough has written an important book centered on detailing the creation of the American revolutionary national liberation army, its trials, tribulations and faults. Moreover, McCullough has written his narrative of events in an easy to follow way, including some very insightful commentary about various turning points in the revolutionary experience, like the effect of the issuance of the Declaration of Independence on the morale of the troops in the field.

The key to understanding the eventual success of the American colonial struggle against bloody England was the coalescing of a ragtag, localized basically over-sized weekend militia into first a New England- wide then a continent-wide army worthy of the name. Along the way cadres were formed that saw the struggle through to the end. No revolutionary movement can be successful without that accrual. The case of Henry Knox, local Boston bookseller turned military magician, bringing captured cannon from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston in order to help ‘push’ the British out of Boston is just the most dramatic case of such cadre development

Equally as important, the names Washington, Gates and Knox and lesser cadre keep coming up repeatedly during this narrative, and rightly so. That points to the decisive question that the narration of events here turns on- leadership at crunch time. A whole school of historians, at one time at least, tended to diminish the role that Washington played in keeping these ragtag forces together. McCullough, rightly I think, challenges that assumption and places the Washington leadership as a key component to success.

McCullough, moreover, intentionally or not, through his narrative not only traces the development of Washington as a leader in the abstract but how he fares during the various campaigns. Thus we are treated to the high of his maneuvers in the key fight that led to the evacuation of Boston by the British in March of 1776, and then the low of the shifting of the struggle to the south with the devastating initial colonial defeats in the greater New York area when the militarsy forces of British imperialism got into high gear and applied its muscle.

Thereafter McCullough details the various retreats down through New Jersey and ends the year with the famous Battle of Trenton that was key to the survival of the revolutionary army in its first year. The narrative breaks off there. Although the opponents slugged it out for several more years the maintenance of a functioning revolutionary army in the field pointed positively toward the conclusion that victory was possible. Read this book and learn more about some of our common revolutionary history.

1 comment:

  1. Here is a tune from 1776 that is very appropriate for us today. Thanks to the late British historian Christopher Hill for long ago directing me to the song as part of his study of the Levellers and Diggers in the English Revolution of the 17th Century.

    The World Turned Upside Down

    Tradition has it that when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown (1781) the British played this tune. There is some debate as to whether that is myth or fact.
    The ballad was first published on a broadside in 1643 to be sung to the tune When the King Enjoys His Own Again. It was a protest against the ending of all the favorite English Christmas traditions which he feels were destroyed by Cromwell's victory at the Battle of Naseby (1645) (see link to blackletter ballads for lyrics from 1646). In America the tune was also known as Derry Down and The Old Women Taught Wisdom.

    I have included two versions here (because one is only one verse). In the second version, the mother is England, the daughter is the colonies and the farmer who tries to make peace is William Pitt, former Prime Minister and a prominent member of Parliament at the time.

    For more information on the tune, another version and When the King Enjoys His Own Again see the links to Bruce Olsen's website below.

    Version 1

    If buttercups buzz'd after the bee,
    If boats were on land, churches on sea,
    If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows,
    And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse,
    If the mamas sold their babies
    To the gypsies for half a crown;
    If summer were spring and the other way round,
    Then all the world would be upside down.

    Version 2

    Goody Bull and her daughter together fell out,
    Both squabbled and wrangled and made a great rout.
    But the cause of the quarrel remains to be told,
    Then lend both your ears and a tale I'll unfold.
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    Then lend both your ears and a tale I'll unfold.

    The old lady, it seems, took a freak in her head,
    That her daughter, grown woman, might earn her own bread,
    Self-applauding her scheme, she was ready to dance,
    But we're often too sanguine in what we advance.
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    But we're often too sanguine in what we advance.

    For mark the event, thus for fortune we're cross,
    Nor should people reckon without their good host,
    The daughter was sulky and wouldn't come to,
    And pray what in this case could the old woman do?
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    And pray what in this case could the old woman do?

    Zounds, neighbor, quoth pitt, what the devil's the matter?
    A man cannot rest in his home for your clatter
    Alas, cries the daughter, Here's dainty fine work,
    The old woman grows harder than Jew or than Turk
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    The old woman grows harder than Jew or than Turk.

    She be damned, says the farmer, and do her he goes
    First roars in her ears, then tweaks her old nose,
    Hello Goody, what ails you? Wake woman, I say,
    I am come to make peace in this desperate fray.
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    I am come to make peace in this desperate fray.

    Alas, cries the old woman, And must I comply?
    I'd rather submit than the hussy should die.
    Pooh, prithee, be quiet, be friends and agree,
    You must surely be right if you're guided by me,
    Derry down, down, hey derry down,
    You must surely be right if you're guided by me.