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1776 | Quotes


We must ... make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish.

General George Washington, Part 1, Chapter 2

This is the response General George Washington makes to one of his generals, who bemoans his tribulations to Washington. It conveys much of Washington's pragmatic attitude about the war. One of his strong suits is his ability to see events and outcomes for what they really are, rather than wish they were another way. By having complete command of the fact, Washington is able to make clear, realistic decisions about his strategies.


Oddly, Howe seems to have had no interest in the man who led the army aligned against him.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

McCullough points out the oddity of an army general having little interest in the tactics of the other side. In a way, it speaks to General William Howe's hubris and experience as a "career" military commander—for him this is just a job he must finish, rather than something to obsess about.


Had he known what he was getting into ... he would never have accepted the command.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

This moment demonstrates the two sides to George Washington very few have seen. His doubts are conveyed in a letter to his friend and confidant, Joseph Reed, and while Washington would never admit this sentiment publicly, he needs a vehicle to vent his vulnerable moments. Although Washington never takes off his mask of determination, there are many moments throughout the war when he despairs and feels completely overwhelmed.


The great majority of the Loyalists had never lived anywhere else, or ever expected to live anywhere else.

Narrator, Part 1, Chapter 3

McCullough makes this revelation after the rebels drive the British and the Loyalists from Boston, and it serves to highlight the uneasy relationship between the three. Many Loyalists remain because they believe the rebels are on the losing side and they don't want to be punished by the British when the rebels eventually fall. Some don't mind the status quo and their relationship with the British. But to have their lives uprooted is more than some of them can bear, and it causes them to feel anger at both the British and the rebels.


No army of such size as this had ever been seen before anywhere in the colonies.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

McCullough makes this observation as Washington's army moves across Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut in order to highlight what a revelatory sight this was for the colonies' inhabitants. Although different regions had their own militias, they had never been brought together before in such a way, and seeing the sight was astonishing to behold, if not emboldening for those who supported the rebels.


We have nothing ... to depend upon, but the protection of a kind Providence.

General George Washington, Part 2, Chapter 4

Here, Washington states an idea he will repeat often in his wartime correspondences: the notion that the hand of God played a much larger and more mysterious role than anything he could plan or strategize on his own. This line of religious justification was common to Washington's era and played a large role in encouraging the rebels to continue on in their efforts whenever they felt Providence had intervened on their behalf.


It was now a proudly proclaimed, all-out war for an independent America.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 4

This revelation comes on the heels of Congress voting to dissolve their connection with Great Britain. Although independence was not the original goal of the revolution, it has now become its rallying cry and driving factor. This move also greatly ups the stakes for the very outcome of the war—for now the delegates have committed treason.


For those who saw omens in ... the elements ... a night so violent seemed filled with portent.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 5

Here, McCullough depicts the terrifying storm that breaks out over New York before a battle and hints at the element of luck and the role of "Providence" Washington and his men are so keenly aware of. For all their strategizing and planning, so much occurs throughout the war that neither side can control, from tides to storms, yet every incident plays a determining factor in the outcomes.


Such affluence ... was proof that America had grown rich at the expense of Great Britain.

Narrator, Part 2, Chapter 5

The British are shocked at the homes of the Americans they encounter, for many of them live in large farmhouses and are prospering. This observation only rankles the British in their determination to overthrow the rebels, who they believe would have none of these things if it weren't for the role the British have played in helping their affairs.


I fear General Washington has too heavy a task, assisted mostly by beardless boys.

Colonel John Haslet, Part 3, Chapter 6

In this chapter the doubts about Washington's leadership and the outcome of the war begin to grow in volume and concern. While some are quick to lay all blame at his feet, others, like the colonel, recognize that in many ways Washington has been dealt a losing hand from the beginning in being given an inadequate army.


We cannot stay ... and yet we do not know how to go.

Joseph Reed, Part 3, Chapter 6

Here Reed perfectly sums up the predicament they are in, comparing it to being "between hawk and buzzard." They are stuck, with no going back and no forward momentum. This tension highlights what an intolerable position Washington is in as he tries to command his broken, bedraggled army—there seems to be no one solution.


They had never considered it their duty to inquire which of the two sides ... was right.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 6

The Hessians are professional soldiers hired by the British to fight for them, and, as such, they care little about anything other than getting paid and fed. It's significant that military practice is so ingrained in them that they are trained not to think about the whys and hows of their operations—only to do as they are told. McCullough portrays them as being more brutal—in pillaging, killing, and plundering—than both the British and the American soldiers, highlighting how mercenary practices lead to holding life cheap.


I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde motions of things.

General George Washington, Part 3, Chapter 6

Written in a letter to his brother Jack, Washington feels comfortable confiding his deepest doubts and depression to him. Here Washington shows his frustration with the backwards motion of his attempts and with the seeming futility of trying to lead an increasingly exhausted army against a military that is easily overpowering them with more men and resources.


An indecisive mind is one of the greatest misfortunes that can befall an army.

Joseph Reed, Part 3, Chapter 7

In his secret missive to General Lee, Joseph Reed finally vents his concerns about what he sees as Washington's deteriorating leadership capabilities. Lee stands in stark contrast to Washington as someone able to make quick and powerful decisions, and given that the war seems to be going badly for the rebels, it's clear Reed is hoping for an alternative solution to its outcome in the form of General Charles Lee's leadership skills.


Out of adversity he seemed to draw greater energy and determination.

Narrator, Part 3, Chapter 7

McCullough observes here that for all General George Washington's private despair and doubts, his resolve often seems the strongest when he has the most to overcome in strategy and battle. It's this quality that saves him and pulls the rebels through in the end, as it forces Washington to make a decisive action to attack rather than delay any longer. McCullough highlights this tension in Washington as one that causes him great emotional pain at times but also spurs him to great action.

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