- The Washington Times - Monday, June 6, 2005

David McCullough is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his biographies “Truman” and “John Adams.” His latest best-seller, “1776,” examines both the American and British strategies during the first full year of the American Revolution.

The following are excerpts of an interview with Mr. McCullough:

Q. How does this book pair up with your last book, “John Adams”?

A. John Adams, in the spirit of the biography, is a birth-to-death chronicle. But the first third of it deals primarily with [Adams’] part in the political side of the revolution, particularly Philadelphia and all that went on concerning the Declaration of Independence. When writing that part of “John Adams,” I was very aware of what was happening away from Philadelphia that bore directly on the country we have.

Because in biography you can’t stray off and start telling a wholly different story, I was a bit frustrated — I was really fascinated by that side of the year 1776. I thought “well, I’ll just do that in an other book.” This is that book.

[The year] 1776 is the most important year in the most important conflict in our history. It’s a year in which both character and circumstance play decisive roles interweaving themselves. In the Adams book, I was, by and large, by nature having to deal with people with large names in history. In “1776,” I wanted much more to focus on people you’ve never heard of, or if you heard of them, you really don’t know what it was they did — people like [American Generals] Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox. Most informed, educated Americans would be hard put to say exactly what they did do.

Q. Speaking of Nathanael Greene, your book portrays him as essential to the American cause. Why is it that we don’t hear and read more about him?

A. It puzzles me, considering how enormously important he was and how much he wrote and explained in his own words including his own feelings and innermost ideals and desires. It probably has to do with the fact that he died very soon after the Revolution — he was a young man and whatever he might have obtained in the second part of life, we’ll never know.

He’s also overshadowed by [George] Washington, but Washington overshadows everybody.

The fact that he isn’t well-known is what appealed to me. I like to give credit to where credit is due.

Q. We talk a lot about the American cause in the Revolution. Why don’t we hear or read much about the British reasoning for the war?

A. Well, I tried to do that in my book — I suppose it’s just nationalism and preoccupation with ourselves.

Also, there’s a long misconception with the British that I hoped to correct. For example, George III was not a madman or a dimwit. The war was not lost by the British because of bad decisions made in London, nor was it lost by the incompetent or indifferent aristocratic officers more preoccupied with physical comforts.

I would say [the war] was a very near thing and could’ve gone either way many times, and especially in 1776.

Q. Why don’t people recognize that victory in the war wasn’t a sure thing?

A. Because, alas, we don’t know our history very well. We have a very interesting country, and it’s not just interesting in the present. It’s also interesting in the past, in its story. And one of the reasons I think that history is endlessly interesting is that nothing ever had to happen the way it happened. It was never on a track, never preordained. If you put yourself back in their time, then you realize even more what a formidable host of, one might say, insurmountable obstacles they faced.

In a time of stress like the one we are going through now, people, by nature, will want to take stock — I know I do. Who are we? What do we really stand for? How did we come to stand for the things we stand for? What are our core values? And I think it’s in understanding our story that we find that.

Q. How important would say George Washington was to the success of the war? Why?

A. He was crucial. He was the indispensable man. Nathanael Greene, as I quote towards the end of the book, referred to him as “the deliverer of his country.” No one was in a better position to make that judgment than Greene.

He was a man of absolute integrity. He had great courage, both physical and moral. He wouldn’t give up; he wouldn’t quit. He didn’t ever forget what the cause or the war was about, and I guess there’s no other way to say it: He was a leader.

He was also a unifying figure. He held this factious army together, and after he became president, he held the very factious geographical sections of country together. He was exactly right for his time.

Q. What lessons can today’s American take away from a study of the year 1776?

A. That courage is contagious. That our blessings as a free people and the noble ideals of the Declaration of Independence were only achieved through struggle — long, often painful, struggle. That democracy doesn’t come easily. We sing about the “home of the free and the brave,” but it takes the brave to maintain the free, to make possible the free.

Q. Why don’t Americans have an interest in knowing their own history?

A. Well, they do in many ways. There is a rising interest in history, very clearly displayed in the success of the History Channel or the number of biographies and histories that appear on the best-seller lists.

[This phenomenon] may have to do with the fact that the teaching of history in schools has been so inadequate for so long that people are trying to catch up. It goes back to what we were talking about before. There is a desire to take stock, sit back and analyze the situation.

People profess their love for the country, and it’s probably genuine. But imagine if you professed your love for another person and not only knew nothing about him or her, but had no inclination, no desire to learn. How deep then is that love?

The people who wrote the Declaration of Independence and fought the war were not perfect. They were human beings. They went in the course of human events. Nor was what they achieved perfect, and they knew that.

America is a work in progress, and if you don’t understand the work, that process and why it was admirable or why it was a breakthrough and also why it is imperfect, then you don’t understand what more there is to do to make it better.

This idea that we are a work under progress and a continuing experiment is our strength. If it was all handed to us complete and perfect, that would be a disadvantage. We have work to do to make it better, to provide more justice, more equality and more freedom within a system they established that still stands.

I sincerely think that if they came back today, they would be proud to see that their system works, that it’s all still in place and working.


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