David McCullough

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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.
Leadership Theme Icon

In addition to detailing the history of the Revolutionary War, 1776 studies the qualities of leadership on both sides of the war. By painting intimate, psychologically nuanced portraits of the British and American military leaders during the war, the book offers some important points about the nature of effective leadership. In part, 1776 suggests that the best leadership is a reflection of natural charisma and talent. First and foremost, McCullough advances this theory of leadership by describing the career of George Washington. Especially in the first half of the book, McCullough praises George Washington’s almost preternatural ability to inspire people and win their obedience. Washington, as hundreds of his contemporaries reported, seemed almost superhuman in person, and commanded attention with ease. He radiated calmness and wisdom, and as a result he could inspire people to fight bravely. 1776 describes Washington’s influence on two New England commanders in particular: Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox. Both Greene and Knox idolized Washington, and showed tremendous initiative throughout the war in part because Washington inspired them to greatness. The link between charisma and good leadership seems particularly strong when 1776 contrasts Washington with his British counterpart, General William Howe. Howe is regarded as a brave leader, but he’s described as a dull and unimpressive person. McCullough seems to suggest that the difference between a good leader and a mediocre leader—and, one could argue, between victory and defeat—is charisma, which some people have and some people don’t.

But 1776 doesn’t just argue that good leadership is a product of effortless charisma. A good leader must also be a good politician. He or she must know how to manipulate other people’s thoughts and emotions. For example, George Washington doesn’t succeed in commanding his troops simply because he’s charming. Rather, he succeeds in part because he’s able to convince the Continental Congress to continue funding his army at every step of the way. He also succeeds in part because he’s a talented orator, who makes electrifying speeches that persuade his troops to be brave and fight to the death. Again, 1776 emphasizes the importance of politics and persuasion by contrasting Washington with Howe: where Washington is compelling, Howe is a dull orator with no talent for “firing up” his troops. But of course, there’s a limit to what politics can accomplish. At the end of the day, 1776 shows, good leaders need to prove that they’re effective leaders by getting some victories under their belts. Otherwise, all their charisma and persuasiveness amounts to nothing. As 1776 drags on, George Washington loses battle after battle, and as a result, he begins to lose his men’s loyalty. Thousands of his troops desert or defect, and even his secretary and close friend, Joseph Reed, begins to doubt his capacity to lead. Only when Washington wins two back-to-back victories at the end of 1776 does he begin to regain his men’s confidence and become an effective leader once again. There is no single factor that defines good leadership, 1776 suggests. A good leader relies on a mixture of charisma, political savvy, ingenuity, talent, and sheer luck.

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Leadership ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Leadership appears in each chapter of 1776. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Leadership Quotes in 1776

Below you will find the important quotes in 1776 related to the theme of Leadership.
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

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:

He was a builder by nature. He had a passion for architecture and landscape design, and Mount Vernon was his creation, everything done to his own ideas and plans. How extremely important all this was to him and the pleasure he drew from it, few people ever understood.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

In restraining Washington, the council had proven its value. For the "present at least" discretion was truly the better part of valor.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:

Washington was a man of exceptional, almost excessive self-command, rarely permitting himself any show of discouragement or despair, but in the privacy of his correspondence with Joseph Reed, he began now to reveal how very low and bitter he felt, if the truth were known.

Related Characters: George Washington, Joseph Reed
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

But for all his raw courage in the heat and tumult of war, Billy Howe could be, in the intervals between actions, slow-moving, procrastinating, negligent in preparing for action, interested more in his own creature comforts and pleasures.

Related Characters: General William Howe
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

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:

Washington's performance had been truly exceptional. He had indeed bested Howe and his regulars, and despite insufficient arms and ammunition, insufficient shelter, sickness, inexperienced officers, lack of discipline, clothing, and money. His patience with Congress had been exemplary, and while he had been saved repeatedly by his council of war from his headlong determination to attack, and thus from almost certain catastrophe, he had accepted the judgment of the council with no ill temper self-serving histrionics.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 111
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:
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:

Washington never accounted for his part in what happened at the Battle of Long Island, and for many the brilliant success of the night escape would serve both as proof of his ability and a way to ease the humiliation and pain of defeat. The Americans could also rightly claim that they had been vastly outnumbered by a far-better-trained army, and that given the odds against them, they had, in several instances, shown exemplary courage and tenacity.

Related Characters: George Washington
Page Number: 194
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

Possibly, Washington was more hurt than angry. Later he would tell Reed, "I was hurt not because I thought my judgment wronged by the expressions contained in it [the letter], but because the same sentiments were not communicated immediately to myself." Possibly the charge of "fatal indecision of mind" also hurt deeply, because Washington knew it to be true.

Related Characters: George Washington (speaker), Joseph Reed, General Charles Lee
Page Number: 255
Explanation and Analysis:

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: