My annual list of books to recommend as Christmas presents is led by the clearest front-runner in years: "1776" by David McCullough.
There was a time when the very mention of 1776 struck a responsive chord in Americans, as the year in which their country's independent existence began. Today, history is so neglected in our schools and colleges that even many graduates of Ivy League institutions would have to have the significance of that year explained to them.
David McCullough's "1776" is the book to give to them -- and to others. This book brings vividly to life the people and the desperate conditions in which Americans began the fight for independence -- losing most of the battles, many of them disastrously -- and yet persevered on, even when all seemed lost.
General George Washington wrote at the time: "The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few people know the predicament we are in."
As for the ordinary American soldiers, beaten in battle, hungry and ravaged by disease, McCullough offers this picture of their retreat: "Heavy rains had left the narrow road sloppy with mud, and the men were in tatters, many without shoes, their feet wrapped in rags." Yet these were the men whose sacrifices created America.
What comes through clearest in McCullough's book is the character and strength of George Washington, which was all that held things together when the new country and its new army both seemed to be falling apart.
A fuller account of Washington's life and character in war and peace can be found in another outstanding book that would make a great Christmas present: "Founding Father" by Richard Brookhiser.
With the world preoccupied today with the terrorism coming out of the Islamic Middle East and spreading around the world, we need to understand what has led up to this fanatical destruction and self-destruction.