In 1776, David McCullough provides a lot of detail about the structure of the American military during the Revolutionary War. But he also suggests that the military was itself a reflection of American society at the time. Based on his depiction of the American military, McCullough suggests that American society in the late 18th century was beginning to embrace principles of egalitarianism, meritocracy, and class mobility to an unprecedented degree. The American military offered opportunities for advancement to people who could prove their talent through hard work. McCullough shows that George Washington favored ambitious, talented officers such as Henry Knox and Nathanael Greene, who earned Washington’s trust because of their military successes, and were rewarded with rapid promotions. Greene and Knox’s ascension is particularly striking since both men came from low- or middle-class backgrounds. Greene in particular was from an impoverished family—a fact that Washington seems not to have held against him during the war. The American army’s emphasis on social mobility and meritocracy contrasts markedly with the structure of the British military around the same time: the most powerful people in the British military tended to be aristocrats who’d won their positions through money and social status, rather than talent or proven track records. (See “British Society.”)
But even if colonial American society was more equitable and meritocratic than certain other Western societies at the same time, it was far from perfectly equitable or meritocratic. Colonial America was still an aristocratic society in many ways. Even George Washington, a living symbol of American democratic values, in many ways behaved and was treated like a European aristocrat. Until the 1770s, Washington lived the life of a wealthy English lord, and even after he became president he was known as “His Excellency.” Furthermore, Washington was often described as being innately superior to everyone around him—a description that arguably has roots in 18th century notions about the inherent superiority of the nobility. Colonial America was also a fundamentally racist society. The meritocracy enjoyed by Greene and Knox didn’t extend to the African American soldiers who fought on the American side. Indeed, Washington, a slave-owner himself, originally didn’t want African Americans serving in his army, but was forced to compromise because he desperately needed troops. In all, the American military—and American society in general—took some important steps toward realizing more egalitarian ideals such as meritocracy and social mobility, even if it remained mired in antiquated ideas about race and class.
Colonial Society ThemeTracker
Colonial Society Quotes in 1776
[King George III] had denounced the leaders of the uprising for having American independence as their true objective, something those leaders themselves had not yet openly declared.
Nathanael Greene was no ordinary man. He had a quick, inquiring mind and uncommon resolve. He was extremely hardworking, forthright, good-natured, and a born leader. His commitment to the Glorious Cause of America, as it was called, was total. And if his youth was obvious, the Glorious Cause was to a large degree a young man's cause.
There had been sickness aplenty from the start, deadly "camp fever," which grew worse as summer went on. Anxious mothers and wives from the surrounding towns and countryside came to nurse the sick and dying.
If the desperate American need for leaders had thrust young men like Nathanael Greene into positions beyond their experience, the British military system, wherein commissions were bought and aristocrats given preference, denied many men of ability roles they should have played.
But as thrilling as the news of Princeton was for the country coming so quickly after the triumph at Trenton, it was Trenton that meant the most, Trenton and the night crossing of the Delaware that were rightly seen as a great turning point. With the victory at Trenton came the realization that Americans had bested the enemy, bested the fearsome Hessians, the King's detested hirelings, outsmarted them and outfought them, and so might well again.