“Perseverance and spirit have done wonders in all ages” – George Washington
I was never a great student of American History and the Revolutionary War when I was younger, only learning the most basic details of what occurred some 230 years ago to secure the Independence of the United States of America. However, my appetite for more information increased a couple of years ago after I read the outstanding biography of John Adams by David McCullough. So it was with great interest that I read his subsequent book, “1776”, the story of General George Washington and those who marched and fought with him in that landmark year.
The story traces the tumultuous war events of those 12 months, including the taking of Boston, humiliating defeats and retreats in New York and New Jersey, and inspiring and pivotal triumphs in Trenton and Princeton. Through these events one gets a very thorough glimpse of George Washington as a leader of men, and an impressive one at that. Despite great setbacks, his steadfastness and courage prevailed.
As McCullough put it, “He was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, nor an intellectual. At several critical moments he had shown marked indecision. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But experience had been his great teacher from boyhood, and in this his greatest test, he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”
In addition to his dogged perseverance, there were numerous other qualities to Washington’s leadership that one would do well to emulate even today – here are some examples:
– He was ever mindful of proper manners towards all, always following the prime rule of civility in his day: “every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those who are present”
– His optimism was contagious – as described by one of his fellow officers he “fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him”
– He knew the limits to his authority and did not attempt to “stretch” his powers beyond his capacity as general, although he most certainly could have
– He was a keen judge of character and was willing to be patient with younger officers even after they made mistakes
– Above all else, he was a realist – his greatest strength was to “see things as they were, not as he wish they were”
Aside from the superb look at Washington, this book has a riveting narrative that is based on many letters, diaries and other texts written by the combatants on both sides, from generals to foot soldiers. McCullough weaves all these pieces together brilliantly. A good example is his description of the events leading up to Washington’s daring raid on Trenton, across the Delaware River. He documents all the meticulous planning and secrecy, and somehow captures the tension and doubt that was creeping into Washington’s thinking while at the same time showing his ever-present perseverance and determination, well illustrated by the mantra of “Victory or Death” that Washington kept writing on pieces of paper on the day of the attack that functioned as the secret password that night.
The other striking element that one notices is the amount of pure luck that factored into the results of these battles – a storm here, a change of wind direction there, all had profound effects on several outcomes that, if they did not happen, could have ended the Revolution right then and there. But in the end it was the superior strength of Washington’s character (as well as two other generals playing prominent roles, Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox) that was the deciding difference in this very true and very inspiring story so well presented by David McCullough.
Next up: “10 Ways to Make it Great!” by Phil Gerbyshak