History is a wise teacher, especially taught by George Washington, Adam Smith, John Adams, and the like. Lessons are never in dispute if facts are clear. Outcomes not for rewriting, except by political forces that disrespect truth. Here is a snap of America, 1776 – and timely lessons.
George Washington, remembered as an epic leader, was not always so. Exactly 244 years ago this week, he was reeling from losses. Having forced a British evacuation of Boston in March, he nearly lost everything in New York, first on Long Island in August – where he managed a miraculous retreat in providential fog, and n later from Manhattan and across New Jersey.
In the largest battle of the 8-year Revolution, 40,000 troops met on Long Island. Battle of Brooklyn Heights, the British outnumbered our disorganized, outgunned militias and Continentals. Americans killed and wounded tallied thousands. That we got away – under cover of night and a “pillar of a cloud” – was stunning.
Historian Rick Atkinson wrote, “defeat brought despondency” and “faith in Washington plummeted.” Nor did things get better soon. Saved from annihilation, our 9,000-strong Army was driven from Manhattan, chased across the Hudson, through New Jersey to Pennsylvania, and just kept shrinking.
Courage to continue is always what counts – to paraphrase later stalwart, Winston Churchill. Even backs against the wall, British dominating Manhattan, Washington defied those trying to crush the Revolution – those who would boldly deny America our freedoms.
On September 16, 1776, before leaving Manhattan, Washington staged a surprise attack at Harlem Heights, using 120 “Rangers” and 900 troops, luring British forward, flanking, and pinching them from behind. It was a modest battle but restored confidence.
By mid-December 1776, Washington’s force – brought low by smallpox epidemic, demoralized, disheveled, half-dressed, exhausted, and on their heels – numbered just 6,100. Already, thousands were captured. Thomas Paine, who wrote Common Sense, wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” And they did. Threats arrayed against liberty were thick, cocky, and real.
Congress abandoned Philadelphia, sure British would overrun it. Army hearts grew heavy, desertions multiplied, hope faded, loyalists regained swagger – like socialists now – and all looked grim. Battles to the north, loss of Quebec earlier, were costly. British supply lines were strong, confidence higher, and liberty’s lifeline shorter.
Here is where the story turns. Here is where lessons of the past should lift and fortify us, give us a renewed sense that – whatever comes our way, sickness, epidemic, assault, or disorder – We Americans are both destined and determined not to let our liberties fail or threats prevail. Here, too, is where Washington became a “man of the ages.”
On Christmas eve, 1776 – Washington pivoted, and suddenly planned the unthinkable. He would inspire weary troops to turn on their ruthless pursuers, strike at the heart of two strong outposts – heavily manned by British and Hessians, Trenton and Princeton. He would cross a half-frozen, uncrossable Delaware upriver by night, then hit Trenton from north and west, taking down the Hessians, then head north and strike at Princeton.
Odds against success were so high, the natural adversity so great, British and Hessian leaders never imaged such rebel audacity. A God-given blizzard and unexpected hard freeze – allowing gun carriages to move – combined with inconceivable courage, so much that when the rebels struck, the Hessians and British were in shock. Thousands got routed. Washington was on every frontline, as he would be throughout the Revolution.
Wrote General Howe to King George III, things were shifting. “The rebels have taken fresh courage …” As a Hessian leader conceded, Washington is “a very good rebel.” New respect filled rebel hearts, for freedom and the future, common sense, and each other. That is what happens when liberty is loved – and those who love it, stand up for it.
We have come many moons – 244 years – since that fateful fall and winter. But liberty is always at risk, and those who believe are obligated – to those who fought for it, share our love for it, and will come after us.
Today, our obligation does not – and may it never – reduce to arms, but it does require reflection on our history, and the stakes in this 2020 election. One side aims to defeat liberties defended by Washington and held high by most Americans – unbridled freedoms of speech, worship, assembly, travel, self-defense, fair trial, and simply put, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The other side aims to defend those rights, without hesitation or degradation.
The point we must never forget, is that this generation, like the first battle-weary Americans, cannot forsake what is expected of us: A burden that rests on us to preserve freedom. When others encourage us to go along, give up, suggest this election is worth a pass, we must vote.
Think on two final observations, both from our founding. Iconic economist Adam Smith, pondering fledging America’s strange love of freedom, at the time of Washington’s New Jersey victories wrote: These Americans “are … contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which they flatter themselves will become – and which indeed seems very likely to become – one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world.” Prescient.
Last from John Adams, as if he were here with us, leaning in on this conversation – right there beside you – to guide you: “Posterity, you will never know how much it cost the present generation to preserve your freedom! I hope you will make a good use of it.” There, in a snap, is history’s timeless askance of us.