Earlier in the year, it started to seemed strange to me that I don’t know more about the American Revolution.
I made a list of things I think I knew about the topic:
While that list seems kind of funny to me, I think it’s accurate and therefore embarrassing. I would be one of those people getting quizzed in a “man on the street” style interview where the audience is supposed to laugh and/or be outraged at how few facts I’m able to recall.
I decided to borrow a few books on the revolution. Of those, I read 1776 first because I remembered seeing 1776 on the bookshelves of a couple different people I know in real life and in one or two pictures of bookshelves of famous people on Twitter.
And the title font and cover art almost made it look like a novel. Seemed like it would be easy to read.
The title 1776 isn’t just code for “freedom” or “the American Revolution in general” like if you saw it on a t-shirt. The book focuses specifically on the year 1776.
It opens with the author describing King George III, what we know from historical record as to whether he was smart or attractive, and on a parliamentary debate on waging war with the colonies for which he offered the opening remarks. Thereafter, the book largely focused on specific battles and the people that partook in them.
1776 really impressed me in how effectively it gave a sense of time and place. I felt like I could create a mental image of the battles and what it would have been like to be there. I felt like I was watching a travel or nature documentary on an exotic location. In effect, it did feel more like reading a novel than a book on history.
One tangential thought expirement that fascinated me was how easily history could have been different. It seems like there were at least two moments in 1776 where if just the weather had been different, America may have quickly lost the war.
But only maybe. One of the motifs of the book was how thoroughly fucked the American army was. If the book was approximately 300 pages, it felt like 200 of them described an American army in a desperate retreat.
The Americans had a couple quick, early victories, but soon their lives became navigating material and existential doom. General Washington seemed to just be trying to keep enough people alive and on payroll to fight again in a hypothetical future where the British made a terrible mistake.
I felt a genuine sense of awe at the perseverance and sacrifice that would have been required by the American soldiers, and an unexpected sense of gratitude. I don’t think of myself as “a patriot” and am significantly more anti-war than the modern Democratic/Republican Party, but I found myself feeling proud to read about American soldiers marching in winter without boots, leaving trails of blood in the snow. One depiction in the book that will always stick with me is that of American soldiers going a day without eating, hiking all night without sleeping, so they could be in position to start a fight at the break of dawn where they could actually die. As a software developer who works from home, it’s difficult to imagine fasting for a day and just doing a workout that lasts longer than 30 minutes in my own backyard.
If 1776 overdelivered on the “what, where, when, and how,” the tradeoff was the “why.” The book focused on the war at the exclusion of broader culture, philosophy, and motivations. I wasn’t seeking out a war book per se, but I’m glad I read 1776. I wish there was a 1777, 1778, 1779, 1780, 1781, 1782, and 1783. I would read all of them.