David McCullough’s book 1776 illustrates the important events of the most fragile year of the American Revolutionary War. Defeat after defeat threatened the survivability of a fledgling country. Up until the last five days of the year, failure was inevitable. Miraculous victories at Trenton and Princeton following daring night crossings of the Delaware River provided sustaining power and confidence for the Army, Congress, and Patriots. This paper reviews 1776 from a leadership perspective and identifies three important lessons for management as a liberal art.

1776 – Overview

McCullough outlines and analyzes the leadership on both sides with insightful historical context. He uses a mixture of documentary and commentary by reviewing letters, journals, newspaper articles, and other historical documents. McCullough weaves the events of 1776 into a gripping narrative that is hard to set aside even though the outcome is already known.

The author provides a venue to study the most important leaders of the 18th century. From Great Britain: King George III, General Howe, Admiral Howe, General Clinton, and General Cornwallis. The American point of view is provided from patriots such as: George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Nathaniel Greene, Henry Knox, and Joseph Reed.

McCullough integrates the military, political, and social challenges of each battle waged that year. He outlines the political position of each side with logical rationale, giving the reader an ability to empathize with both British and American viewpoints. Throughout the course of the book the reader is able to gain insights from the perspective of each leader in context of managing a series of complex leadership issues.

1776 – Leadership Lessons

Lesson1: Passion, belief, perseverance, and commitment are important leadership traits.

Some people are loyal to a cause; some are loyal to a position. An example of this is found in the comparison of Benjamin Thomson with Nathanael Greene. Both requested a commission in the American Army and were refused. Thomson consequently defected and served in the British Army (McCullough, 2005, p. 32). Greene instead enlisted as a private in the continental army preferring the cause over title (McCullough, 2005, p. 23). Within a short period of time Greene proved his ability and was ultimately promoted to Colonel and eventually General. He ended the war as one of Washington’s key officers, and like Washington, served the entire duration of the war and was instrumental in the success of the revolution.

Lesson2: Leadership is the art of executing goals and objectives through the efforts of others.

The Continental Army lacked all of the professionalism and experience of the British forces. Yet, Washington understood two fundamental principles of leadership that proved invaluable. First, he developed the talent available, which included subordinate officers and an untrained army. He said “make the best of mankind as they are, since we cannot have them as we wish” (McCullough, 2005, p. 256). Second, he understood that people cannot be forced; they must be inspired. Said Washington: “Leaders can instill great confidence […] troops properly inspired […]will often exceed expectation or the limits of probability” (McCullough, 2005, p. 284). He also said “a people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove” (McCullough, 2005, p. 293). Washington’s presence, passion, commitment, and unwillingness to give up, even when threatened with the worst of outcomes, motivated soldiers to outlast and ultimately out-maneuver the richest and best trained force in the 18th century world. Grooming resources to maximize talents and minimize deficiencies is the responsibility of a good leader (Drucker, 2001, p. 10).

Lesson3: Leadership can be lonely.

The right of top management has privilege but also pressure. McCullough shares that Washington, though surrounded with advisors and the counsel of his best officers, singularly felt the weight of responsibility for all decisions, even those of subordinate officers acting within their own innovations. For example, one of his best officers poor decision cost the surrender of a vital fort, yet as a leader Washington absorbed the decision and responsibility as his own when answering to Congress.

Modern managers face these same issues – give people authority and they will eventually make mistakes. Who is responsible for the mistake? The leader must almost always bear this burden, which places special emphasis on selecting and training good subordinate leaders.

Above all responsibilities though emerges the loneliness of leadership, which is a result of the extraordinary responsibility for large quantities of people, and for the actions of subordinate leaders. Always present in the back of Washington’s mind was the pressure of decisions. Any leader’s decision has potential for poor outcomes because people are imperfect humans. Since the responsibility of leadership is singular, the loneliness therefore is unshared. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (History of Henry IV, Part II).

1776 – Management as a Liberal Art

Lears (2003) states a liberal education produces “a habit of thought, a frame of mind” (p.23) and “the pursuit of truth for its own sake” (p.27). A liberal education provides the ability to reason, think, and draw from past experiences. Nye (1986) explained that “creativity occurs after the mind has been well honed and stocked with facts and ideas. This storehouse becomes exposed to a question, time goes by, and suddenly the pieces fall into place and a solution appears” (p. 73). The study of leaders in 1776 fills the mind with material essential to the modern manager who must, like Washington, deal with dynamic human issues in an increasingly complicated world. 1776 is a book that should be mandatory reading for every leader. The insights strengthen the understanding of a leader’s role, illustrate the loneliness and pitfalls of high leadership, and teach how to execute social duty within the framework of an objective, but without pride or greed.


Drucker, P. (2001). The essential Drucker: Selections from the management works of Peter F. Drucker. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Lears, J. (2003, January/February). The Radicalism of the Liberal Arts Tradition. Academe, p. 23-27. Retrieved April 24, 2006 from http://0-search.epnet.com.catalog.georgefox.edu:80/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&an=9091579.

McCullough, D. (2005). 1776. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Nye, R. (1986). The challenge of command. New Jersey: Avery Publishing Group, Inc.

Shakespeare, W., & Bevington, D. M. (1994). Henry IV, Part 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.