58 pages 1 hour read

David McCullough


Nonfiction | Book | Adult

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Summary and Study Guide


1776 is a biography of the American Revolutionary War written by historian David McCullough. Published in 2006, the book is a companion piece to John Adams (2001), a biography McCullough wrote about the second US president. Though the Revolutionary War did not officially end until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the text follows George Washington, King George III, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and other key figures as it examines crucial military events.

In recounting Revolutionary War losses and retreats as well as major successes, the book centers primarily on George Washington. Unlike other histories that focus on narrating the Continental Congress’s development of the ideas of “freedom” and “liberty” as they applied to the colonies, this book takes the reader into the trenches, following each of Washington’s battles with his New England militiamen, who were completely untrained and, according to some, unfit for battle.

The book also paints objective, detailed portraits of some of the most important American and British participants of the war. It opens with King George III, the king of England and a villain by most American accounts, seen as having less in common with other royalty than with many commoners. His desire to bring the colonies back into the fold seems sincere, but McCullough allows readers to decide for themselves.

In addition to chronicling George Washington’s heroic battles, it also gives a thorough report of his early life, his educational background, his marriage to Martha Custis, his life as a wealthy Virginia planter, and his love of architecture and home decor. His staid personality comes through, not just in his war exploits but also in his personal dealings with his officers and his men.

Chapter 1 opens in London after the battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill, as King George III and Parliament grappled with how to respond to the potential war with the colonies. Chapter 2 shifts to the colonies, tracking Washington’s personal history and recounting how he came to command the Continental Army.

Chapter 3 centers around the battle for Boston, as British forces sieged the city. This chapter also explores how the conflict affected everyday citizens and how this campaign affected Washington’s leadership style. Chapters 4 and 5 recount the armies’ southern advance toward New York, focusing on the Continental Army’s many failures and losses during the New York and New Jersey campaigns.

Chapter 6 describes the Continental Army’s disorganized retreat from New York, the disastrous Battle of Fort Washington, and Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, which pushed the British back northward. Chapter 7, the final chapter, recounts the continued fighting in New Jersey, especially the battles fought around Christmas Day 1776, which secured two key victories for the Americans. The book ends by examining George Washington, Henry Knox, and Nathanael Greene at the end of the war, to explain why they were so important to the revolution’s success.