I’ve just finished listening to David McCullough’s 1776 and I am very impressed. Though I was a history major in college, I focused on post-Revolutionary, and in particular post-World War II, America. As a result I knew relatively little about the war itself, though of course I knew some about the political philosophy of the founding period.
The book is remarkable in its ability to interest the reader in the personalities of the war, and McCullough does a wonderful job of using quotes from diaries and letters to give one a sense of the lives these soldiers lived.
For better or worse, the book paints a very different picture of General Washington than the one I had previously. McCullough, both for himself and quoting soldiers of the period, criticizes Washington numerous times for his indecisiveness and for several blunders that could have led to the end of the Continental Army and the cause of American independence. Without question Washington was a remarkable leader and an inspiration to thousands, but much more fallible than schoolchildren will be taught on the Wednesday after next.
Perhaps the basic history that most Americans receive must be simplistic, else there would not be time to learn it in any breadth. Thus, we can’t go too far wrong if we recognize that Washington was great, George III was a tyrant, etc. And it may be, too, that my mind simplified concepts that were introduced with appropriate complexity in my grade school days.
But I can’t help comparing the feeling I had in thinking about Washington’s falterings to the discussion I had a few weeks ago about sports officials’ fallibility: Are we better off believing an overly romanticized vision of people, so that we have “heroes” we idoloze, respect, or admire? Does the country benefit more from believing Washington was perfect than it would from analyzing his behavior in the Battle of Brooklyn? Should this inform the way in which we discuss judges? Specifically, how much should we discuss the non-legal influences on Constitutional Law? Does any of this affect the instant replay debate in sports?
In the end, I tend to like to hear the ugly truth, and I care little if some are taken from their high horses. But I’d welcome comments from those who disagree, and applaud Lisa Simpson’s refusal to tarnish the image of Jebediah Springfield.
The title of this post and the first sentence have been updated to reflect the proper title of the work.