Fantasy time: If I had lived in the colonies 229 years ago today, would I have stayed here in harm's way, or returned to London to sip tea and nibble crumpets with Fortnum and Mason (or one of their forbears)? The temptation would have been great on the eve of the Revolution. Losers would have been traitors, to pay at the end of a British rope.
Would I have had the confidence in a ragtag army of farmers who knew how to use a pitchfork, but not necessarily a gun? Would I have trusted that the sailors and fishermen, artisans and tradesmen of town and country, shoemakers, saddlers, carpenters, blacksmiths and tailors could defeat the mightiest empire in the world? How seductive, given the final choice, would it have been to leave behind dresses of homespun cotton to aspire to the fine fabrics of London ladies?
Strong considerations of family life would have intruded, too. It wouldn't have been easy to encourage a husband or a teenage son to go off to join a raw, undisciplined, inexperienced "rabble in arms," to follow a general who had never led any army into battle. Disease and hunger followed them. Fathers marched off with their sons; one Connecticut woman "fitted out" five sons and 11 grandsons.
King George III rode to Parliament in a gilded chariot decorated with golden sea gods, symbols reminding the American colonies that Britannia ruled the waves, almost without challenge. Would I have imagined the king right, after all, when he announced to Parliament that "to be a subject of Great Britain, with all of its consequences, is to be the freest member of any civil society in the known world"?
These are the questions that flood the reader of David McCullough's new book, "1776," where we learn that for all of our romantic notions that the colonies were guaranteed by destiny to win independence from Great Britain, the result was actually far from certain. This is the book to read on this Fourth of July as a complement to the barbecues and speeches and fireworks. Doubt and uncertainty threw a shadow over everything, from the eloquent and contentious debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords to the dark and bloody ground where the ragged colonists camped. The historian shows with photographic clarity that no matter how glorious the cause, the margin between victory and defeat is a thin one, with the winner often determined by combinations of circumstances requiring enormous human sacrifice.
The grandeur of English royalty reflected the "wealth and weight of the British Empire," but George Washington was no slouch either. He had an imposing style of martial dignity that served the day. On that day he took command of the troops at Cambridge, one Lt. Hodgkins, an Ipswich cobbler, describes "one and 20 drummers and as many fifers a beating and playing around the parade [ground]." A Philadelphia physician and patriot observed: "There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side."
General Washington's favorite play was "Cato," by the English writer Joseph Addison, whom he was fond of quoting as commander in chief: "'Tis not in mortals to command success, but we'll do more, Sempronius, we'll deserve it." He inspired his men to do more and deserve it. David McCullough shows how Washington, with his famously wretched teeth, fastidious dress and indecisiveness, nevertheless had a canny ability to learn from his mistakes. There are dark moments when it seems that success arrives only because God must be on our side, providing propitious storms, a fog to hide a retreat and contrary winds to foil the British fleet. But God helps those who help themselves, as the folk wisdom goes, and Washington was the strong human leader.
David McCullough, our most popular historian, dramatizes the human experience behind scholarly fact in a narrative that is not about the Declaration of Independence, but about what it took to beat the odds. In November 1776, after Washington had lost four battles and just before he crossed the Delaware to Trenton, British commanders offered a pardon to all who would swear allegiance to the crown. It was time to put up or shut up. I can hope I would have remained steadfast then, resolute in confidence that neither I nor my family would ever again sing "God Save the King." I didn't have to make that choice. Thousands of men and women who went before us did, and thank God for every one of them.