What a precarious thing is independence, which we celebrate tomorrow. I just finished reading “1776” by David McCullough and it really gave me a sense for how fortunate we are to have any country at all. Victory over the British in the Revolutionary war was not at all certain. The tiny, rag-tag band known as the Continental Army was badly out-numbered, under-financed, ill-trained and largely unorganized; miraculously it defeated the best military of the time, and tomorrow we will cook hotdogs and hamburgers on the grill to commemorate the feat.
McCullough describes the American victory at Boston in spring 1776, and then the string of stinging defeats in the latter part of the year. The British had Gen. George Washington on the run all the way from New York, through New Jersey and across the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. McCullough describes a dramatic turning point for the Americans with victories in battles at Trenton on Dec. 26 and Princeton a week later. They would fight another six years – 25,000 Americans would die in the fighting -- until the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the war in 1783.
It is mind-boggling to contemplate the obstacles Gen. Washington faced. His army was almost completely untrained. He couldn’t even get an accurate count of how many soldiers he had. Every day, dozens of soldiers would just walk away, deserting their post. Others would feign illness. There were no uniforms and many didn’t even have shoes. Early in the war, there was a shortage of gun powder.
Gen. Washington had to rely on the colonies to send troops, and he never knew what he would get. At year-end 1775 and again in 1776, Gen. Washington begged his troops to stay on past their obligation because so few new troops were on the way. After 1775, most left, but on Dec. 31, 1776 he convinced many to stay only by promising them bonus pay that he didn’t even know for sure he was authorized to offer.
Reading this book, you get a sense for the loneliness of leadership. People honored Gen. Washington when things were going good, but after they lost New York, people began to doubt him. People left the army and even his own No. 2 officer wrote letters behind his back questioning his “indecisiveness.” Although this lack of confidence hurt him privately, Gen. Washington kept an optimistic public face and forged ahead. He did not give up. His surprise attack at Princeton was bold and courageous.
It is interesting, too, that when the fighting started in the fall of 1775, the battle was not for independence. Revolutionaries were fighting for representation in the British government. It wasn’t until the war got going that the cause morphed into full-blown independence. Members of the Continental Congress, most of whom had no contact with the fighting, passed the Declaration of Independence on July 2 in Philadelphia.
While some members of Congress and Gen. Washington were convicted about the need for independence, one gets the sense from this book that most Americans were uncertain. Many people remained loyal to Britain and King George III. The loyalists were key in the British victory to win New York. And when things looked bad for the Americans, many of them signed a document declaring their loyalty to the King so as not to be tried as traitors after the war.
I could not help but ask myself upon reading this book whether I would have sided with the rebels or the loyalists had I lived in 1776. What a difficult choice. For Americans living in the big cities of the day, living well and making money in the marketplace, what incentive did they have to fight for independence? Sure, there was taxation without representation but that was a small price to pay to be part of the greatest empire of the era. If you wanted independence, the odds seemed so totally overwhelming against you. How could the rebels beat the greatest military in the world? It seemed impossible.
The country was deeply divided, which gives me some perspective for today. We commonly hear that our country is divided on all of the important political questions but I am realizing that is not new. We were divided at the time of the revolution, at the time of the Civil war and today. One of the real tricks of living peacefully in any era is getting along with people who disagree with you.
“1776” is an optimistic book. It demonstrates what enormous feats can be accomplished even if you don’t have what you need, even if you don’t have supplies. Success must have something to do with will. Gen. Washington was willing to fight on Dec. 26; unlike the Hessian soldiers fighting for the British, the Americans weren’t hung over from Christmas Day celebrations; unlike the British who were waiting out winter in the comfort of New York City, the Americans were willing to fight in the snow and sleet storms, and in the end, it made a big difference.
Gen. Washington and the members of the Continental Army could not have imagined the scope of the United States of America more than two centuries in the future. What would North America look like today had Gen. Washington given up and the Continental Army lost? It is impossible to know. But we do know that we have a great country today and that that greatness has something to do with the courage and conviction exhibited by people like Gen. Washington and others throughout the last 230 years.
tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.
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