David McCullough Revisits '1776' Late in 1776, George Washington led a bold attack on the British at Trenton. The victory had an immediate effect on the morale of a newly forged nation. On Independence Day, historian David McCullough talks with Neal Conan about his book, 1776.
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David McCullough Revisits '1776'

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David McCullough Revisits '1776'

David McCullough Revisits '1776'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

It began with a shivering, ill-supplied and untested army-laying siege to Boston in the midst of a New England winter. George Washington's troops would force the British to evacuate, but the first full year of the Revolutionary War saw disaster in New York and retreat across New Jersey and ended as the remnants of a defeated force launched a surprise attack across the Delaware at Trenton and Princeton.

Great challenges and difficulties would lie ahead, but in 1776, a new nation settled on its purpose, established its army, and found its leader. The story in David McCullough's book 1776, just out in paperback, makes it clear just how long the odds were against success and just how close Britain came to keeping its rebellious colonies.

One of America's most popular and respected historians, Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough is our guest today. Later in the program, some practical advise on July 4th photography. How do you set up to get a good picture of fireworks. And your letters. But first, 1776.

If you have questions for David McCullough about the year our nation was born, join the conversation. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@NPR.org. David McCullough joins us now from his home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts. Thanks so much for being with us today. Happy 4th of July.

Mr. DAVID MCCULLOUGH (Author, 1776): Same to you, and I'm delighted to be your guest. Thank you.

CONAN: You're famous for biographies: Roosevelt, Truman, Adams. Why did you pick a year to write about the Revolutionary War?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, I had written several books of history prior to my biographical projects. I'd written about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: ...and the Panama Canal creation, and I was very interested, as a consequence of writing my Adams biography, in what else happened in 1776 besides the Declaration of Independence and all of the hard work, and then the heroic efforts of those who took part in the deliberations in Philadelphia about the Declaration of Independence. How much else was happening that we Americans very, let's say, too seldom celebrate or remember when we're celebrating the 4th of July...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: ...that had a long-range effect as great as or greater than the Declaration of Independence? In other words, those people who were fighting the war, those people who were marching in Washington's army, losing again and again, being set back, discouraged, humiliated, in many respects, in one effort after another, and yet who still kept - who still kept remembering what the fight was about and who wouldn't quit.


Mr. McCULLOUGH: And it's to them that we really owe great gratitude and infinite respect because without them the noble ideas and ideals of the Declaration of Independence would have been nothing more than words on paper. And as you said earlier in introducing our conversation, it could have gone the other way in the year 1776, several times.


Mr. McCULLOUGH: And the more one studies our Revolutionary War, the more one has to come away feeling that it was a miracle it turned out the way it did.

CONAN: That first scene - your book is really a - has been described by better critics than me as being in three acts. The first act, about the first third of your book, focuses on the siege of Boston, Massachusetts. Of course, gets started in 1775. The dramatic events, though, are in 1776. And it's one of those things that, unless you're puzzled by the date of the Boston Marathon or why the Red Sox play at 11 o'clock that morning, that we don't celebrate that much in this country.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, we should because it was an extraordinary American triumph. We hadn't proven ourselves very adept as soldiers. We didn't know much about drill or the manual of arms or sanitation of military camps and the like, but we knew how to do things. We knew - the average soldier knew how to do a great deal in the way of hard work and constructive hard work.

And as a consequence, the army under Washington that was holding the British under siege in Boston constructed amazing fortifications all around the city. And in one brilliant stroke, from an idea hatched by a Boston bookseller, 25-year-old Henry Knox, who knew nothing about the military except what he read in books, we sent - we went to the upstate New York wilds of Fort Ticonderoga, young Knox and his younger brother, and they, by hiring a great many teamsters and oxen and sleds, hauled the guns from Ticonderoga, the big canon from Ticonderoga, nearly 300 miles in the dead of winter, down the valley of the Hudson and over the Berkshire Mountains to the outskirts of Boston.

And then in one night, those canon were put up on top of Dorchester Heights, which was a commanding summit overlooking Boston Harbor, and it made it impossible for the British to remain there any longer because we controlled the scene.

CANON: One of the things you make clear in the book, though, was that the British had plans to withdraw from Boston anyway.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: That's right, but Washington, who was then in command and had been in command since mid-summer of 1775, but was not about to just sit there and do nothing - that wasn't in his nature - he had wanted to attack time and again, but his council of war, his other general officers, had talked him out of it time and again, fortunately.

CANON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Because we really were not in a position to attack the British. It would have been a terrible bloodbath, and we would have been repulsed almost for certain. But we came out of that Boston experience, having humiliated the British empire, thinking very highly of ourselves, and marched off to New York expecting the British to return very soon in force, which is exactly what they did.

CANON: Well, before we get to New York, let me ask you a couple of - one more question about what happened there, across from Boston. There's a fascinating moment where the generals, including General Washington and General Lee, his second in command, realized that New York is going to be the next theater of war and the most important city on the East Coast, for the British an obvious target. And General Lee proposes, well, if know anything about General Lee, of course, he proposed himself to go to New York and take command down there. General Washington, though, does not want to presume on his - the extent of his powers.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Very interesting point. He - it's all - they're feeling their way all the way along. How do you do this? What is the proper thing to do? And Washington, among his salient strengths and contributions to our whole story and our whole makeup as a nation is the - he was a political general in the best sense in that he understood how the system was supposed to work, that he was not in command. Congress was in command. And so he conferred with John Adams, who happened to be back in Boston...

CONAN: The president of Congress.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Who was - no. The president of Congress was John Hancock. John Adams was there and he said, would it be alright for me to lead this army into another state, into another colony? And Adams said, absolutely. But Adams was taking upon himself to speak for the Congress.

But Washington throughout the whole war never forgot that he was not in charge. It was the Congress of the United States. And this was one of his greatest understandings of what the war was about. And after the war was over, he would relinquish his power back to Congress in a gesture that was more than just a gesture, it was an expression of his bedrock understanding of what the war had been fought for.

And conquering generals didn't do that in history. They didn't relinquish their power and return to civilian life.

When George III was told by the American painter, Benjamin West, in London that George Washington might do this, George III said if he does that he would be the greatest man in the world.

CONAN: Not far from it. Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. Our guest, of course, David McCullough. If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with John. John calling us from Wichita in Kansas.

JOHN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, John.

JOHN: I'm going to pull over so I don't lose my tower here. I'm driving.

CONAN: Your tower or something else even more vital than that. Happy Fourth of July, by the way.

JOHN: Thank you very much. Mr. McCullough...

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes, sir.

JOHN: Thank you very much for your immense efforts in writing these books. I've come away with a totally different view of George Washington. Are you there?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes I am.


JOHN: In grade school, we get the idea that this was a kind of a cakewalk. That he was a great man, he walked in and he did it. And gosh, my impression with your book was he had so many failures, which you've just been talking about. But these are really tough men.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: That's exactly right.

JOHN: I mean, tough men. I mean, to do what they did in their time without air-conditioned cars and - you know what I'm saying.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes. We are softies in contrast. To many people, the figures, the main characters or protagonists of the drama of our founding years are perceived as almost like characters in a costume pageant with their powdered hair and their ruffled shirts and satin britches and the rest.

But they were nothing like that. And they weren't gods, they weren't superhuman. They were very human beings. And each of them had his flaws, his failings, and his mistakes.

Washington make countless mistakes through the war, and especially in the first real year of the war - 1776. But he never failed to learn from his mistakes. And he never let his mistakes defeat him in spirit for very long. He was a man of extraordinary self-command. And he could overcome his own feelings of inadequacy, his own feelings of self-pity, which we only know about from his private correspondence, and remained through the entire struggle a symbol not just of determination, perseverance and spirit, as he would say, but of unity. He unified the force.

Now we must - also we must not think of everybody rising as one people to throw off the yoke of British Empire. Less than half the country were for the revolution, maybe only a third.

CONAN: John, I'm afraid we're going to have to end there 'cause we have to take a short break. Drive carefully, have a great Fourth.

JOHN: You too. Have a great Fourth.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Thank you.

CONAN: So long.

JOHN: Mr. McCullough, very much.

CONAN: Bye bye. We'll be back after a short break. Again, if you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On this Independence Day, we're talking with historian David McCullough. His book, 1776, just out in paperback, tells the story of the birth of America. And of course you're invited to join out conversation. 800-989-8255 is our number. You an email us too: talk@npr.org.

And here's an email we got from James in Rio Vista, California, who points out that Mr. McCullough, in his wonderful book, John Adams, presents valid reasons to lead me to believe that August 2, 1776, is the true date of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The United States, he writes, did not become an independent country until 3 September 1783, with the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty.

Mr. McCullough also writes that John Adams himself believes that independence was declared on July 2nd. The July 4 signing was only to authorize the printing of the Declaration. So when was the Declaration of Independence signed? When was independence declared? And why is the 3rd of September not celebrated as the birth of our country?

Mr. McCULLOUGH: The truth is, as he said, not much happened on July 4th in Philadelphia in 1776. That's the date on the printed documented. The crucial day, as Adams loved to point out - and where he was quite right - was July 2nd, when the Second Continental Congress voted for the Declaration of Independence. That's when the Declaration passed the Congress.

And they didn't start signing it until the first week of August. But there was no one day when they signed the Declaration of Independence, because delegates were often back home and it took a long time to return, given the slow means of transportation in those days.

So that many people didn't sign until late in the summer or on into the fall. And one delegate didn't sign until after the turn of the year 1777.

And all of this was kept secret. This wasn't advertised about who had signed the Declaration of Independence. Because anyone who put his name to that document was putting his head in the noose. He was declaring himself to be a traitor. And loyalists were everywhere - Tories, as they were called, and spies.

And this was - all transactions in Congress were conducted in secrecy, behind closed doors. And so the fame, the celebrity that would come with having signed the Declaration of Independence didn't come until much later.

And it's quite true to say that it wasn't until the treaty of Paris, signed in a building that still stands on the Left Bank in Paris, was when the United States of America was formally, officially recognized as an independent nation by Great Britain and by the Americans who signed that treaty, including Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.

CONAN: So maybe we ought to just take President Bush's comments today to heart and say every day is Independence Day in America.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Every day is Independence Day. But we should celebrate on July 4th, because that's the date on the document. And it's one of our great traditions. It's also - we're celebrating independence and liberty, not just for those who are descended from those who lived 230 or more years ago, but those who are becoming citizens in naturalization ceremonies all over the country today.

I took part in one such ceremony not very many years ago on the lawn of Monticello. Jefferson, of course, having been the one who drafted the Declaration of Independence. And it was one of the most moving days of my life to see those new citizens from every part of the world standing there becoming citizens of a country that's now into its third century.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. And this is Greg. And Greg's calling us from Portland, Oregon.

GREG (Caller): Hello. Can you hear me alright?

CONAN: Yes, Greg. Go ahead, please.

GREG: All right, good. I wanted to talk to Mr. McCullough. I'm a history teacher in England. I teach at an international school and I teach British history to 12 year olds, to seventh graders. And I wanted to share my perspective teaching the American Revolution to that kind of a class.

CONAN: Probably runs a little shorter.

GREG: It's different. I ended the year - I start with the beginning, which is, you know, 3500 B.C., but I ended the year with the, you know, the Hanover King. So we just ended with the period of the American Revolution. And what - a book I used to supplement my teaching, Simon Sharman's history of Britain called The Wrong Empire and he discusses - and I taught from this perspective a little bit about how things really went sour for the British with their colonies in North America and it should not have happened. And yet they wound up with this world empire that you could argue was centered in India, which was kind of the wrong empire for them.

But back to my original point, is that I think the British standpoint now is that it was really too bad that the Revolution happened, that this thing went the way it did. Pitt, as you probably know, William Pitt argued, you know, in favor of the English colonies in America and really throughout this political career and just wasn't wasn't to be.

And it goes back to the Seven Years War, to the war that - it wasn't a seven years war, over here it was a nine years war that George Washington, you could argue, started.

CONAN: In the wilds of Pennsylvania, of course, known as the French and Indian War here.

GREG: (Unintelligible) became Pittsburgh.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: One thing that's very important to understand is that when Americans fought the British at Lexington and Concorde, and when they fought later in the bloodbath of Bunker Hill, the Americans were not fighting for independence. They were fighting for their rights, their natural-born rights as Englishmen. And they thought it would be a short, violent to be sure, family squabble.

Washington told his wife that he expected to be, when he took command at Cambridge in July of 1775, that he expected to be home by Christmas. Jefferson in late August wrote to a kinsman that he thought that it would be wonderful if things could be patched up and we could return to the good old feelings of other years with the mother country.

But in late October - which is where my book begins - in London, George III went before the Parliament and gave one of the most important speeches ever given in the parliament, a speech that changed history, changed world history, in which he said the American colonies were in rebellion, that the political leaders of that rebellion were traitors, and that the rebellion would be put down.

And there were many people in parliament who were adamantly opposed to that position. But they were in a distinct minority. So the king's position was the popular position in the country. And it's too often portrayed - it seems to me - that the British were led by general officers who were aristocrats and not particularly effective as soldiers, that their heart wasn't in the war, and that their bumbling was, in large part, the reason for our success.

The British officers, the British soldiers, were superb. Yes, there were some officers that were less effective than others. The courage and the soldierly training and conduct of the British troops was admirable in the extreme.

What most people don't understand is that our Revolutionary War became a world war in the process of the war being fought out. And the presence in the war on our side of the French was of the utmost importance. And the money that was provided for us by the Dutch was, in many ways, crucial.

The Dutch deserve far more credit in our story than we are accustomed to giving them. But in the Netherlands they know all about it.

It's wonderful you're teaching history in England. I applaud all who teach history and teach it with the kind of commitment that I sense from what you just said.

CONAN: So you got through several hundred thousand years in that, in the first term there?

GREG: Well, like I said, I started around 3500 B.C. when you've got the first, you know, the thawing, if you will, of the ice and the first people. Then I was able to end, you know, in the 1770s. And next year, because I am going back for another year, I would like to at least get through the Hanover kings. You always do a better job your second time around - or you should.

But it's been, you know, it's been a pleasure. And I also have a - I'm also able to teach that whole era of the 1760s - the '50s, '60s and '70s. I have a number of Canadian students, as well as American students, and the British - you know, the rest of - I have an international student body in my 7th grade and I can, you know, I can touch upon all these aspects.

But it's fun getting into this last period here in May because it's something that so many of my kids kind of have a little bit of an idea on. You've got the American perspective and, of course, Canada was formed - beginning to form at this time.

CONAN: Yeah. We call them Tories, I think. Anyway, Greg thanks very much for the call - good luck with your class next year.

GREG: Thanks, Chris. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Happy 4th of July.

GREG: Yeah, the same.

CONAN: David McCullough, he mentioned Simon Schama and I wonder if you've had a chance to take a look at his most recent book which focuses on African-Americans in the War of Independence, many of whom decided to fight on the other side.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Oh, it's a very big subject. He's a superb historian. I have not read it yet, but I look forward to it. I think one further point to make about the Revolutionary War is that it was the longest war in our history except for Viet Nam. It was a very long, drawn-out struggle. And the suffering and the hardships endured were, in many ways, beyond anything we customarily think about or imagine.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: It was the bloodiest war, on a per capita basis, of any war we've fought except for the Civil War. Our population was very small, so that the total number of Americans killed doesn't seem overwhelming, particularly to those of us who have been so bludgeoned by the statistics of wars in our own lifetime.

But these were real people fighting a very real, difficult, heart-breaking war that it appeared, time after time, year after year, that we had very little chance of succeeding with, but we did.

CONAN: Our guest is David McCullough. His book, 1776, is just out in paperback. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255 or you can send us e-mail, talk@npr.org. And this is TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we get another caller in. Peggy(ph), Peggy calling from Santa Cruz in California.

PEGGY (Caller): Hi, Mr. McCullough, thank you so much for having me on and happy Fourth of July to everyone.

CONAN: Happy Fourth of July.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Same to you.

PEGGY: And I also am a teacher, I teach U.S. history, but here in the States. And one thing that I found is really inspiring to my students - and I've used a lot of your works, Mr. McCullough, both through American experience and through excerpts from your books - is students like a lot to hear about the real lives of people and especially they're interested in the roles of women in this time period in history and how they had to kind of keep things going at home while people were out fighting this tremendously long war. So I was hoping you could speak a little bit to that.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, absolutely. The...

PEGGY: The Daughters of Liberty and those kinds of...

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Yes. And all of the women who had to carry on at home, are running the farm, trying to make ends meet, coping with shortages, coping with inflation, coping with soldiers returning from the war with severe wounds or the loss of limbs or, more commonly, disease, which then was - infectious disease which was spread through the towns to which they returned, and taking hundreds of lives.

It was - it was a - Abigail Adams once wrote in a letter to her husband, A posterity who will reap the blessings will scarcely be able to conceive the hardships and struggle of their ancestors. And that's true.

And there were women who went with their husbands to fight in the war and women who supplied all kinds of medical help and food. And it was - it was everybody. Little boys, 13 year old boys fought in the war, marched with the troops, 15 year olds, old men.

CONAN: In a way, we associate the phrase total war with Sherman and the Civil War, but really this was total war.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well it was, except they didn't wantonly ravage farmland and the rest through much of the war. That' isn't to say always. There were terrible depredations by the British Army when they crossed through New Jersey, which was a big mistake on the part of the British, letting their troops run wild, because New Jersey was mostly all loyalists, or Torreys.

And when they started confiscating livestock and burning crops and rape and robbery and the rest, it just turned that part of the country against - very much against the British Army for the first time.

CONAN: Peggy, thanks very much for the call.

PEGGY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: So long. Let's - we've got time, I think, for one last question. Let's turn to Drew(ph) - Drew calling us from Louisville in Kentucky.

DREW (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi Drew.

DREW: I have a question for Mr. McCullough. I'm a history major at Wake Forest University and from your unique perspective as being both a biographer and historian, specifically with the Revolution and also just in general, do you see it as more great men being - shaping the times, or as extenuating times and circumstances shaping great men?

CONAN: And you'll be able to hear the sound of Drew taking notes as you answer, David McCullough.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: Well, if you read their letters and their diaries, you see again and again men who were well-known to us, high-ranking officers, but also people in the ranks, saying that history, or fate, or God, or providence, has cast them in one of the great historic dramas of all time and that therefore it's beholden upon them to play their parts with everything that was in them.

Now this, of course, it was being said very often by people who really did deliver the very best that was in them. But this idea that history would be judging them - a sense of history isn't just a sense of what went before you, it's also a sense that you yourself are part of history and that you will be judged by generations to come.

And this is to a large extent because of the prevalence of classical history among the people of that time. In other words, their history that they knew, and that they tried to live up to wasn't the history of the United States. It hadn't been written yet.

CONAN: Greek and Roman.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: It was Greek and Roman, exactly. And they're trying to live up to those ideals of virtue, honor, character - character's a Greek word - service to the - for the good society. And now, of course not all people lived up to it and not all felt they needed to. But enough of them did that they were able to prevail.

CONAN: Drew, thanks very much for the question. Good luck on the test.

DREW: Okay, great, thank you for having me.

CONAN: So long. David McCullough, thank you so much for being with us today. Happy Fourth of July.

Mr. McCULLOUGH: The same to you and thank you for including me.

CONAN: David McCullough's book, 1776, just out in paperback. When we come back from a short break, photography advice: how do you get a picture of fireworks? I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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