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David Mccullough: Summary and Themes in “1776” Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Jun 14th, 2022

1776, which adds a new scholarship and a fresh perspective to events that took place at the start of the American Revolution, is a historical book written by David McCullough that is considered a companion to his earlier biography of John Adams. This 1776 book review essay shall analyze the story by McCullough.

The period was one of the turbulent and confusing times in the history of the U.S. as the British and the American politicians made drastic efforts to reach a compromise.

However, the situation on the ground worsened until the war was unavoidable. As much as the book mainly revolves around George Washington, there is also considerable attention given to “King George III, General Howe, Henry Knox, and Nathanael Greene, and the main key revolutionary conflicts portrayed in the book include the Battle of Dorchester Heights, the Battle of Long Island, and the Battle of Trenton” (McCullough 1).

Themes in 1776 by David McCullough

1776 is a book about the significant events that took place when the thirteen American colonies were fighting the world’s most notable power, Great Britain, in order to gain freedom from its oppressive rule.

In illustrating how America got its freedom from Great Britain, the author starts by pointing the readers to the theme of oppression that was propagated by the colonialists. The British wanted the Americans to pay taxes even though there was not even one parliamentary representative for all the thirteen colonies. First, they needed to impose the stamp act. The colonies, led by Samuel Adams, successfully forced the British to repeal these taxes by threatening the tax collectors.

Besides, the British continued their oppression by imposing a tax on essential imported goods such as tea and paper. Although there were spirited attempts from the Americans to gain freedom, the British used forceful means to continue their oppressive rule, for example, the violent killing of five people during the Boston Massacre and the enactment of the Tea Act that forced locals to purchase tea only from accredited British companies.

The major theme detailed in the book is the theme of leadership portrayed by George Washington. His essential role is depicted by the thesis of the book, which states that without the Continental troops led by George Washington, the fight for American independence would never have been achieved (McCullough).

As much as the British troops were well equipped and experienced, Washington led an army of Americans from various backgrounds and ages that lacked adequate training in military combat. The American Revolution, which was basically a chess game played out between the two great Georges of the eighteenth century, involved King George III of England and Washington, the second player in the chess game.

King George III, who was only thirty-three years of age when the battle with the American colonies started in 1774, was tall for the times, handsome, and had strong leadership skills that drew individuals to him. On the other hand, Washington, at forty-four years of age, was charismatic and had equally strong leadership skills due to his engagement in the French and Indian wars. Although the British defeated Washington several times, he successfully managed to keep his army together and was eventually victorious.

Another theme portrayed in the story is hypocrisy. The fighting began at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Even though the Americans lost that war, the British army had many casualties. When the Americans recovered, they surprisingly attacked the British in Boston, forcing them to retreat to England on their ships. Even though the American spirit went higher at this moment, it was going to be thwarted by some hypocritical soldiers who were more loyal to George III than to Washington.

On returning, the British had even a stronger army who were full of expectations of defeating their enemies by a landslide. As the combat ensued, Washington’s army was forced to retreat, and they lost precious territories along the way. One of the factors that led to their defeat was the presence of traitors within the inexperienced American army. These people, who were called “loyalists,” chose to show their loyalty to Britain than to their motherland.

Lastly, the book portrays the theme of ingenuity. In spite of the many losses at the beginning of the historic twelve months in the struggle for America’s freedom, what made a group of inexperienced soldiers conquer the world’s most influential nation at that time? As the author dramatically shows it, it was a complex combination of dedication amidst countless sufferings, determination, and above all, ingenuity.

1776 Book Summary

All through the book, the author vividly captures the events that were taking place. The British commander, Lord General Howe, maybe not perceiving that the revolution would be successful, underrated the ingenuity of the Americans.

In turn, the outnumbered American army employed the cover of night, surprise, and an abiding hunger to defeat the oppressive regime, for instance, Henry Knox, walked three hundred miles each way over the harsh winter terrain to deliver 120,000 pounds of weapons from Fort Ticonderoga to Boston. This made the Americans, in a cautious nighttime attack, to seize Dorchester Heights and reclaim the whole city.

McCullough did to me what I had thought could never be done: he finally made history interesting to me. 1776 is a book that if an individual starts to read, it would be impossible for him or her to put away simply. Even though the title gives a hint about the contents of the book, its full benefits are only reaped by reading the book.

It is evident that 1776 marks one of the most critical years in the history of the United States, if not the most significant year in the history of the country. However, since I am rather a novice in the area of history, at first glance, I did not fully fathom the meaning of this until I decided to find out by myself by reading, of course.

David Mccullough’s 1776: Analysis & Criticism

I expected the book to be divided by major military battles that took place prior to independence. However, the author shares the text by small events, which have significant impacts on the major military actions. The three main divisions of the book are The Siege, Fateful Summer, and the Long Retreat. The first category, titled “The Siege,” following the reinforcements undertaken at Dorchester Heights, gave me a vivid account of the military aspects of any battle.

The chapter begins with a quotation, “God save our King, Long live our noble King, God save the King! Send him victorious, Happy and glorious, Long to reign o’er us; God save the King!” (McCullough 1). The quotation was taken from a British newspaper.

I was surprised to learn that the battle was a widespread occurrence for the British. The author made me realize the experiences of the soldiers on each side of the war. The excerpts from the many letters written by ordinary soldiers indicated that the soldiers on both sides had a good reason to continue fighting.

I find in the book that McCullough is not a very good prose writer since some of the events happen without the reader noticing. However, this perceived weakness is the strength of the book since he carefully culls facts to make a compelling story. The author begins the first part of the book by detailing the overconfident speech given by King George III, and as the book ends, George gives a more disciplined speech, whereas in between, the American army and the British army are engaged in bloody battles.

It is a fascinating history, indeed. However, I think that the author (or his publisher) could have included more maps to make the story easier to understand. The three facsimiles maps, drawn in 1776, included in the book did not make any difference. All the same, I enjoyed reading the book.


It is somehow true that the path to America’s independence has never gained the same interest that has been accorded to the events that transpired during the Civil War, the First World War, or the Second World War. Even though 1776 will not alter that fact, the most interesting thing about McCullough’s work is that it motivates readers to look even more in-depth at the events that surrounded the road to America’s independence. Even currently, as the U.S. is struggling with serious issues regarding freedom, democratic rights, homeland security, as well as the intricate balance between those issues, it is of the essence to commemorate America’s birth. As the 1776 book review essay showed, in the book, McCullough seeks to achieve this by giving an analysis of the times, the spirit, and the struggles that triggered the U.S. on its path to present greatness.

Work Cited

McCullough, David. 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.

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