Review of David McCullough’s 1776

Often things are not as they seem, and one needs to look at a view from all sides and sources before passing a judgment. This idea is especially true when it comes to politics, as we are often bombarded by all sorts of information from all different types of angles. With politics being as complex and essential to a properly functioning society as it is, it is very important that we are informed and are not afraid to dig deeper into an issue. One way I dug deeper into an issue and to add to what I have learned in this class was to read David McCullough’s 1776. This work of non-fiction absolutely has increased the depth of my understanding of various topics which we have discussed in class. Two of the topics that I found most important and relevant were the idea of an efficient bureaucracy (in the case of an army), and the functions and power of Congress.

According to Max Weber and as discussed in class, an army is one of the most stable and efficient organized bureaucracies. Weber defined this with four key points, not all of which could be attributed towards Washington’s army as described in 1776. The first characteristic of a successful bureaucracy is that there is hierarchy. In Washington’s army, an attempt at hierarchy was made, but one could argue that it was not very successful. The hierarchy of the army began with soldiers at the bottom, then officers, generals, and commanders (such as Washington and Greene), with Congress at the very top actually make many of the decisions of the army. However, McCullough described that within the hierarchy “many officers little or no idea of what they were supposed to do” and as remembered by a solider at that time, “the officers… [were] quite as ignorant of military life as the troops” (31). Some could argue that this is a mark of Washington’s army’s unsuccessful hierarchy, but others would argue that this is a mark of the next qualification of Weber’s definition, that a bureaucracy is rule-driven and impersonal. When the army was first pulled together, it was said that they were horribly unorganized and that the men were often unruly, drunk, or using foul language (McCullough 29). Naturally, Washington tried to the best of his abilities to promote organization within the army by enacting “new rules and regulations” that were “read each morning after prayers” (McCullough 32). However, many of the troops felt that the fact that they showed up was enough, and chose to continue on with their less-than-professional behavior.

Weber’s third qualification for an effective bureaucracy was specialization, which wasn’t really present anywhere in Washington’s army. Since very few of the troops had actually had any experience with war or fighting before, it would have been very difficult to actually train them and divide them into specialized fields or tasks as they needed to become familiar with basic military functions first. Although the bureaucracy of Washington’s army seemed to have been lacking in the three characteristics above, it definitely mastered the final characteristic, or that the army was efficient (meaning absent of political decisions). For the most part, the decision-making for the army was carried out by Congress, which lends to the discussion about roles of Congress as described by McCullough and as described by our class lectures and our textbook.

As discussed in class, there are three main functions of Congress today: legislation, representation, and oversight. Naturally, the Congress described in 1776 fulfilled these roles differently than the Congress today. For the most part, the Congress in 1776 did not have a lot of legislative authority as they were still under the rule of England. Therefore, the English Parliament was usually at the head of legislation. However, this caused an issue when it came to the idea of Congressional representation. The colonists felt that those in the British Parliament were not representing them at all, implying that those in Parliament were taking on a trustee role of representation, which allowed them to make decisions based on their own judgment while neglecting that of the majority (or that of the colonies). However, the Congress of the colonies absolutely implemented oversight successfully over Washington’s army, at least initially. When the war first began, Congress essentially “held the ultimate power,” according to Washington, and he needed their approval on many major decisions, regardless of whether or not he agreed with their decision. One instance in which he disagreed with Congress was when he consulted them with whether New York should be abandoned or burned. Congress felt that New York was too valuable to burn and should be abandoned, but Washington felt otherwise. This is an instance that marks the “dysfunction of Congress” as discussed in class. As Congress was something of a an outsider looking in when it came to the war and battles, they were often very slow at making decisions, even if they may be critical decisions. Washington needed to know immediately about how to handle New York, but he was afraid to “stretch his powers” and felt that it was clear that his authority did not extend “beyond the immediate theater of war” (McCullough 80). However, as the war continued on, Washington began reaching out beyond his authority as Congress began granting him more power. In one instance, when times seemed very desperate, Washington offered the soldiers a higher pay if they would be willing to stay and fight, even though their time was up. Even though Washington had “no authority whatsoever to do so,” he followed his own judgment in a trustee role of representation, which ended up being for the best for the army. However, Washington found out that three days previous to his offer to the troops, he had been granted the authority to “use every endeavor…to prevail upon the troops…to stay with the army” (McCullough 286). In this manner, Congress passed on the power given to themselves in our modern-day “necessary and proper clause” (in which they can do whatever is necessary to fulfill their powers), on to Washington, who now had the authority to literally do whatever he saw fit to get the troops to stay and fight. However, such authority is not to be taken lightly, as Washington knew very well, and this made him something of a negative and passive leader, an idea addressed in lecture. He represented a negative leader as he felt it was dangerous to give any one person or group too much authority, and in a letter to his wife he wrote that “far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it…of its being a trust too great for my capacity” (McCullough 49). Here, it is very clear that Washington is uncomfortable with the amount of authority and influence he has been given. Therefore, he also represented a passive leader as he often delegated roles to other commanders, ensuring that he was not left with absolute power.

Overall, reading David McCullough’s 1776 definitely provide me with an interesting view on the differences between modern-day bureaucracies and Congress, and those from Washington’s time. The ability to examine patterns from history is a very important skill as it can teach us a lot about what did and didn’t bode well for those in the past. The period of time described in 1776 is no exception. This period shows us what features of a bureaucracy can help our armies today, what type of leaders (such as a negative and passive Washington) are most effective, and how strong the role of Congress should be today. Altogether, McCullough’s 1776 is a valid piece of literature for anyone who desires to increase their knowledge about the past, or to deepen their understanding about contemporary politics and government.

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