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1776 | Main Ideas

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Role of Luck

The role of luck is something General George Washington and his men constantly marvel at, despite planning their military strategies down to the second and inch. Washington often mentions a reverence for the hand of "Providence," or God's mysterious hand in guiding the outcome of events. In Part 1, Chapter 3, when Washington is deeply disappointed at Dorchester Heights, McCullough is careful to make explicit that, "He did not 'lament or repine at any act of Providence," and that Washington told Joseph Reed he is a "convert to the view of poet Alexander Pope, that 'whatever is, is right.'" By playing up these moments, events, and observations, McCullough highlights the mysterious, tenuous nature that luck brings both sides during the war through various weather events, delays, missed signals, and the like. There are many moments in the book when something could have gone slightly different and drastically altered the outcome of an event, but both good luck or bad luck seem to intervene to aid or hinder successes on both sides. Nobody seems more astutely conscious of the role of luck than Washington, which plays up the tension his ongoing, careful pragmatism comes into conflict with. If luck can play so large an influencing role, McCullough seems to wonder, how different might this country be today had something gone differently? It brings a more philosophical concern between the cracks in tightly planned military strategies and also demonstrates how a man as level-headed as Washington could be so blasé about the mysterious role luck played in his defeats and successes.

Washington's Perseverance

General George Washington's charisma and personality as a leader are highlighted not only through McCullough's depiction of him but also through many of the letters from his generals and Congress that history has preserved. Although, at times, even those closest to him expressed their concerns about his private tendency towards indecision and doubt, his ability to command an army so vulnerable and inexperienced through his perseverance and personality alone is a testament to his innate skills as a leader. A particularly dramatic moment comes in the days before he knows many of his soldiers' enlistments are up, and despite their weariness, his impassioned speech rouses many of them to stay on and fight. Even when in private despair, Washington never seems to lose sight of what the long-term goals are or why he and his soldiers are fighting this war. Setting his gaze so far ahead helps him persevere through his darkest hours. Lesser men would likely have lost their cool many times throughout the tensions that are depicted, but Washington only becomes publicly upset when his soldiers are misbehaving. In return, many of his soldiers and generals seem to have a genuine reverence and respect for him.

Larger-Than-Life Events

The description of the royal procession in the opening pages conveys the wealth and, by implication power, of the British monarch. This wealth and power drive King George III's desire to increase British military activity in the colonies. But such set pieces are relatively infrequent in 1776. More common is the use of historical documents to introduce a variety of contemporaneous perspectives and voices. McCullough's considerable archive of historical texts includes both public sources, such as speeches and periodicals, and private ones, such as letters and diaries. By drawing on such material McCullough preserves a sense of the human scale of the events and experiences that take place. McCullough also renders painfully human the extreme emotions and doubts faced by Washington and his troops. The letters from them all depict a time of unbearable tension, bravery, and, at times, despair. This human touch renders the more technical aspects of the war awe-inspiring, for knowing how deeply they affected its participants.

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