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Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2005 10:20 pm

Is this war really necessary?

Getting ready for David McCullough by finding no glory in 1776

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As I read 1776, the best-selling introduction to the Revolutionary War by historian David McCullough, I kept hoping the American colonists and their British cousins would find a better way to settle their differences. When King George III made his case for war before Parliament, arguing that “the spirit of the British nation” is too high to give up the colonies that she had “nursed with great tenderness,” I muttered, “Get real.” The reason violence was necessary, reasoned King George, was that the Americans had resorted to violence. In Parliament, Charles James Fox answered the king: “I cannot consent to the bloody consequences of so silly a contest about so silly an object. . . and from which we are likely to derive nothing but poverty, disgrace, defeat, and ruin.” I cheered for the Duke of Grafton, who, speaking in the House of Commons, called for repealing the Stamp Act and every other law that was making America mad. Any notion of conquering America on its home turf was “wild and extravagant,” said the Earl of Coventry. But King George had the votes and the war was on. When David McCullough comes to lecture in Springfield on Monday, I’d like to ask him how that first war could have been avoided, and whether life here would be so very different if it had been. Did the ultimate success of that war, and the consequent linking of violence with freedom, lead to the war in Iraq? Was George W of 1776 anything like the George W of today? Tom Paine might call me a “summer soldier and a sunshine patriot,” but I sided with the British generals who wanted to take the winter off. The American generals were elected by their men, so they kept finding excuses not to fight in order to curry favor with the troops. Maybe we should go back to electing generals. During the Siege of Boston, General George Washington turned down the Harvard president’s house for the largest mansion on the hill, and he thought New England Yankees “exceeding dirty and nasty.” He kept trying to rally the troops, telling them that everything “dear and valuable to freemen” was at stake in the war, but some noticed the incongruity that the leader of the battle for freedom was the master of 100 slaves.  Major General Charles Lee thought it absurd that Washington, foe of monarchy, had people address him as “His Excellency.” No wonder that when their one-year enlistments were up, troops headed home by the thousands. There may have been glory later, but not in 1776. This first year of the war, covered in McCullough’s book, went badly for the colonists. For most of its 386 pages, Washington is in full retreat. The famous painting of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which I thought portrayed the general triumphant, was in fact a scene witnessed by the artist Charles Wilson Peale when Washington was escaping from the British closing in from the New Jersey side. Even the Declaration of Independence seemed little more than an effort by the politicians in Philadelphia to rally the troops getting beat in New York. Time and again during that long and bloody year, the British would make a peace overture. “Take it, take it,” I found myself urging, and at one point thousands in New Jersey headed for the British camps to declare their loyalty. Washington had to keep pleading for the country to stay the course, calling for “patience and perseverance.” As it turned out, writes McCullough, “The war was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended, it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population.” McCullough takes issue with Washington’s ill-fated indecision about the defense of Fort Washington, which resulted in a disastrous defeat and the British capture of 2,800 American prisoners. “And it need never have happened,” writes the historian. I wonder if he might say the same thing about the entire war?  
David McCullough speaks at Sangamon Auditorium on the UIS campus at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 24. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the UIS ticket office. He’ll sign books in the lobby outside the auditorium after his presentation.
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