David McCullough

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on 1776 can help.

Idealism vs. Practicality Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Military Strategy Theme Icon
Leadership Theme Icon
Idealism vs. Practicality Theme Icon
Colonial Society Theme Icon
British Society Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in 1776, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Idealism vs. Practicality Theme Icon

Right away, 1776 draws an important contrast between the two sides of the American Revolution. On one hand, the revolution is the product of Enlightenment values. The Founding Fathers, one could argue, are motivated by their philosophical commitment to the principles of freedom, democracy, and self-determination, as epitomized in the Declaration of Independence. Classrooms and books about the revolution usually emphasize this side of the Revolutionary War. But, as 1776 immediately makes clear, the revolution wasn’t just about abstract principles. Many of the soldiers who fought under George Washington were just looking for a steady job, or thought that a British invasion would interfere with their abilities to make money and support their families. Throughout the book, practical considerations, such as paying his troops, occupied much more of George Washington’s thoughts than did the abstract principles of democracy. In short, 1776 poses an important question about the Revolution War: to what extent were soldiers motivated by their ideals, and to what extent were they just acting out of ordinary, practical self-interest?

From the beginning, 1776 emphasizes the practical, concrete side of the Revolutionary War, suggesting that realism was the deciding factor in the success of the American war effort. The Americans who chose to fight alongside George Washington often did so because it was the practical, sensible decision and provided them with good wages. American troops tended to hail from working-class backgrounds. They needed to support themselves and their families, and they recognized that the military provides them with food, money, and opportunities for social advancement. While some of these soldiers, such as Nathanael Greene, were genuinely inspired by their hatred for British rule, many more acted out of economic necessity. It’s a mark of the American soldiers’ realism and practicality that so many of them defected, deserted, or refused to reenlist when conditions were especially poor. As 1776 dragged on, soldiers encountered all kinds of unforeseen obstacles. Many died of “camp fever,” others died of starvation, and still others froze to death. Moreover, the American army was short on funding, meaning that Washington couldn’t always afford to compensate his troops. For all these reasons, hundreds of soldiers deserted, and thousands more refused to reenlist when their time was up. Had political idealism been of central importance to the American troops, then far more of them would have chosen to weather the obstacles and remain in the army. By the same token, it’s a mark of the soldiers’ practicality that many of them chose to reenlist after the Continental Congress authorized Washington to pay his soldiers their wages upfront. In other words, it was often cold, hard cash—not the Enlightenment values that supposedly motivated the Revolutionary War—that convinced so many American soldiers to stick together and continue fighting for their country.

McCullough acknowledges that abstract political ideals did play a role in the American side of the Revolutionary War. George Washington was an effective military leader in part because he was able to inspire his soldiers to embrace political values such as freedom and equality. Furthermore, McCullough argues that the Declaration of Independence, with its celebration of self-determination, gave the American troops a further motivation to fight against their British opponents: they weren’t simply fighting for their pay, they were fighting for their country. Nevertheless, 1776 shows that political idealism proved most impactful when it was combined with strong economic motivations. Idealism by itself was rarely enough to inspire the troops. McCullough also suggests that ideals were more influential for generals and other commanders, such as Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, than they were for foot soldiers. In general, commanding officers tended to be more financially independent than their military inferiors, meaning that they had the luxury of embracing political ideals where foot soldiers had to prioritize securing food, shelter, and wages for themselves and their families. Commanding officers were also less likely to be killed in battle, further skewing their motives away from the practical and toward the idealistic. Ultimately, 1776 suggests that the Revolutionary War, while partly motivated by democratic idealism, was fought and won by practical, realistic people who wanted to survive and make decent wages. This point may not be particularly surprising. Still, it’s important to stop and consider the realistic, practical aspect of the war effort, rather than focusing on the idealistic side, as many history classes do.

Related Themes from Other Texts
Compare and contrast themes from other texts to this theme…

Idealism vs. Practicality ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Idealism vs. Practicality appears in each chapter of 1776. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
chapter length:
Get the entire 1776 LitChart as a printable PDF.
1776 PDF

Idealism vs. Practicality Quotes in 1776

Below you will find the important quotes in 1776 related to the theme of Idealism vs. Practicality.
Chapter 1 Quotes

[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.

Related Characters: King George III
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

He knew how little money was at hand, and he understood as did no one else the difficulties of dealing with Congress. He knew how essential it was to the future effectiveness of the army to break down regional differences and biases among the troops. But at the same time he struggled with his own mounting contempt for New Englanders.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 40-41
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Nathanael Greene
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Furthermore, as he knew, discipline was hardly improved, and too many of the new troops were raw recruits as unruly as those of the summer before. Some who were lauded as shining examples of patriotism looked hardly fit for battle, like the Connecticut unit comprised entirely of "aged gentlemen."

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Such courage and high ideals were of little consequence, of course, the Declaration itself being no more than a declaration without military success against the most formidable force on earth.

Page Number: 136
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Remember officers and soldiers that you are free men, fighting for the blessings of liberty- that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.

Related Characters: George Washington (speaker)
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

There was no ringing call for valor in the cause of country or the blessings of liberty, as Washington had exhorted his troops at Brooklyn, only a final reminder of the effectiveness of bayonets.

Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

Washington is said to have as he watched the tragedy unfold from across the river, and though this seems unlikely, given his well-documented imperturbability, he surely wept within his soul.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

Called on to explain later, Cornwallis would say his troops were exhausted, footsore, hungry, and in need of rest. More important, it had not seemed at the time that excessive haste was wise or necessary. There were dangers in too rapid a pursuit. He worried about General Lee, who was variously reported just ahead or coming up from behind. But had it looked like he could catch Washington, Cornwallis said, he would have kept going, whatever the risks, no matter the orders.
Some would see the pause as a horrendous blunder and blame William Howe.

Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: King George III
Page Number: 290
Explanation and Analysis: