• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #76: 1776


The musical was better.

As a quasi-serious historian, I sometimes feel like I should be torn over writers like McCullough and Philbrick. Their work is the USA Today treatment of history, digested and simplified and repackaged to be palatable to a broader audience. And yet I can't find it in me to muster a snobby attitude about mass-market popular history books and authors. For one thing, anything that gets people to read instead of watch the tube is worth it (well, almost anything). In particular, books like this get people to expand and deepen their understanding of history, and what I like about McCullough and others of his ilk is that they do so in a largely slant-free fashion. There are so many alleged historians out there (the Goldbergs and Zinns of the world come to mind) who want to wield our shared history as a political cudgel to advance their particular agendas. I'm not talking about the overt foolishness of "books" by Coulter or Limbaugh or O'Reilly here, I'm talking about pseudo-academics who are funded by places like American Enterprise with titles like "Chair of Applied Liberty". It's all part of the effort afoot to whitewash our curricula to suit a certain antediluvian mindset. It's horrific and offends me as a citizen and a historian.


McCullough avoids this with a fairly straightforward retelling of our national origin myth. It doesn't try to artificially overlay a theological narrative, or reject one. It doesn't try to cast the founders as a prayer group or as Evil White Dudes. It uses primary sources distilled into readable prose that gives us a tincture of the familiar efforts of Adams and Jefferson but focuses mainly on Washington and the Continental Army. This is a book more of military history than political, and it explores the triumphs and failures of the team in the field as American independence, still in infancy, hung by a slender thread. There are better books about the topic, especially for those with a good grip on the basics of the time. But this one is probably the best-known, the most popular, and the most accessible. Plus, it gave me the chance to rant a bit, and that's always fun.


My copy usually lives in its assigned shelf spot without complaint. But my Adams and Jefferson wine bottles were excited to be a part of today's post, so there we are.

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