[21 October 2007]
With the gargantuan monuments, idolatrous regard, and stately yet one-dimensional portraits which gaze at Americans from their currency, it’s quite easy to forget that the founding fathers were actual human beings. They were people, with families and friends, whose actions and undertakings are immeasurably more complex than the bare facts of an American History syllabus. The way most people learn about the American Revolution is as a map, covered in arrows which are punctuated by cartoon cannon blasts representing battles. Boldface names float among these simplified campaigns, imparting crucial tactical information yet leaving the deeper stories unexplored.
David McCullough’s 1776: The Illustrated Edition bucked such textbook compression upon its release in 2005, amplifying the legacy of these towering figures not by reinforcing what everyone already knew about their great deeds and successes, but by focusing on their uncertainties and doubts in a time when it seemed like the fledgling independence movement would be snuffed out in its cradle. Its blockbuster success showed that a thirst for greater clarity with regards to the circumstances of the country’s birth existed and has now provided an opportunity for McCullough to expand his deeply personal narrative with some fascinating augmentations in 1776: The Illustrated Edition.
A gorgeous, coffee-table friendly book, 1776: The Illustrated Edition is in fact abridged. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that McCullough has shirked his duty to the past by simplifying or compressing the truth, however. The historian has tightened the original text to provide room for an impressive array of images and illustrations that make the book a fascinatingly immersive trip back to the 18th century.
McCullough does not just serve readers an omniscient birds-eye view of the time as in the original edition of the book; here he invites the reader into the private conversations of the subjects, along the roughly-drawn streets of colonial America, and in a way, through the careful process of chronicling and presenting history. Such multi-layered, three-dimensional perspective is achieved through a bit of theater, a dash of interactivity that draws the reader into the events in a particularly innovative and pleasing manner.
Throughout the book, McCullough has placed several translucent brown envelopes, fastened shut with a sticker bearing the seal of the “Board of War and Ordinance”, a committee organized by the Continental Congress to oversee the proper supplying of soldiers. It’s like an important communiqué tucked within the book, and its contents are certainly vital to the reader’s understanding of the events which are unfolding around them in the body of the text. It’s intelligence, reconnaissance, and exceptional insights that pierce the visible layers of history to the core.
Each of these envelopes contains realistic reproductions of primary source documents: correspondence between George Washington to his wife Martha, or John and Abigail Adams; detailed maps created by spies and engineers during the maneuvers around Boston; and even a newspaper front page which first conveyed the text of the Declaration of Independence to the public (along side a request for subscribers to settle their bills and advertisements for cattle). There are 37 of these pull out reproductions in 1776: The Illustrated Edition, amplifying McCullough’s narrative by allowing reader to actually see the original texts upon which it is based.
The effect these supplements have on the cumulative experience is profound. It’s one thing to simply read Washington’s words as they are related through the eyes and pen of an intermediary like McCullough, but to hold in your hands a faithful recreation of his original letter, to follow the loops and valleys of his script handwriting—this experience significantly personalizes the history. A letter dated June 18th 1775, which General Washington sent to his wife, is particularly humanizing. In it, Washington reports to Martha that the Continental Congress has appointed him Commander-in-Chief, and thus tasked him with defending the American cause.
“I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it,” he writes forlornly of his new station, “not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity…” The doubt, the uncertainty is not something we see in that steely silhouette that adorns the quarter. It’s a reassuring revelation, however. Holding the document, following along with the strong and certain handwriting of the General, it’s like being part of the tale, and provides a window into the manifold concerns and musings of figures we’ve yet to fully comprehend in spite of their familiarity.
The provided documents aren’t limited to the upper echelons, or even merely the American side. There’s Henry Knox’s letter describing the mad dash from the captured Fort Ticonderoga, hauling heavy cannon through the wilds of Western Massachusetts to support Washington’s assault on the British encamped in Boston. “I have made forty two exceeding strong sleds,” he reports, “& have provided eighty yoke of Oxen to drag them as far as Springfield, where I shall get fresh Cattle.”
Knox also corresponds with his wife, Lucy, exchanging tender words meant to assuage the fears on the homefront and comfort the fears on the front lines. The British evacuation of Boston is chronicled in the official documents of British General William Howe, whose notice to the Earl of Dartmouth deftly trends the line between accepting responsibility and preserving his skin, while regular redcoat Loftus Cliffe informs his brother after the battle of Trenton of his irritation that the rebels have not honored “winters Quiet in Quarters”, forcing them to fight in the cold.
Each of these items is a treasure, and their inclusion in 1776: The Illustrated Edition allows those with a particular interest in old documents and American history to have their own piece of the past. Of all the included replicated relics, perhaps the most stunning is the “Ambrotype” of Ralph Farnham. Farnham was a continental soldier who enlisted to fight the British in May of 1775, at the age of 18. Eighty-four years later, at the age of 102, he sat for his “ambrotype”, an early form of photograph.
To see an actual representation, a photograph of a revolutionary war veteran, is quite astounding. Looking upon him truly brings the reality of the past to the fore. Though he is quite elderly, he is smartly dressed and sits with a ramrod posture. He seems familiar, almost contemporary. One wouldn’t think twice if he were spotted sitting in a present-day park. He’s an original American, and he looks much like us.
For readers who loved the original edition of 1776, or who missed the opportunity the first time around, 1776: The Illustrated Edition is a must read tribute to the heroes of the American Revolution, and the tremendous effort in designing and creating such a volume has set a high bar for historians and publishers who’ll need to keep its example in mind for the future.