Ihave just finished reading David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, an account of the crucial turning point in the American Revolutionary War that began with Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River into New Jersey on Xmas night of 1776. The story Fischer tells is a thrilling one.
There is heroism aplenty. Fischer is, inter alia, a superb military historian with a complete command of 18th-century warfare — military organization, weaponry, logistics, the importance of maintaining proper sanitation in encampments, and tactics — and he draws compelling portraits of major figures on both sides of the fighting and of the battles themselves.
The physical privation of the soldiers is almost too much to believe. Many of those who crossed the Delaware River, choked with ice and impassable in many places, at night and in blizzard conditions, wore only the most threadbare of clothing. After surprising the Hessian garrison in Trenton and taking the town — virtually the first American victory since Bunker Hill and the eviction of British forces from Massachusetts — the American forces retreated across the Delaware River. Two days later, they once again crossed into New Jersey under conditions even worse than the first time.
In early January, at the second battle of Trenton, the Americans stymied a fierce British and Hessian attack, inflicting heavy casualties on the first day of fighting.
That night, awaiting the next day’s assault by superior forces and recognizing that another retreat across the Delaware River would be impossible and might result in the loss of most of the American forces, Washington’s army made a daring nighttime escape around the British flank and headed for Princeton, which American forces were able to capture and leave before British reinforcements arrived. Many of the American troops who marched through the night to Princeton were shoeless, and their frostbitten, cracked feet left trails of blood on the ground.
ONE OF FISCHER’S PURPOSES is to demonstrate how American exceptionalism affected the conduct of the Revolutionary War. In Washington’s councils of war, for instance, his officers showed no deference, though they respected him greatly. “The discussion was freewheeling and its tone suggested that Washington wanted it that way,” writes Fischer. The suggestion to disengage from the British at Trenton and outflank them on the way to Princeton came from a subordinate officer and was adopted by Washington. By contrast, the British general Cornwallis imposed his plan for attacking Trenton “from the top down, against the judgment of able inferiors.”
Most of the Americans were deeply religious. They believed that they would be victorious only if they deserved to be and if theyremained faithful to the principles of liberty. In European warfare of that time, showing clemency to surrendering troops was discretionary, and many times they were shot or bayoneted to death. The American army introduced universal humane treatment of captured soldiers.
As a citizens’ army under civilian control, the Americans were much more sensitive to individual casualties than their European counterparts. The American way of warfare was designed to maximize gains at minimal losses.
Americans did not view warfare as Europeans did, as a nobleman’s vocation in the pursuit of glory, but as an interruption in an everyday life to which one sought to return as soon as possible.
WHILE KEENLY AWARE of the crucial impact of social structure on the conduct of the war, Fischer does not lose sight of the need for extraordinary individuals even in democracies. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, noted early on the tendency of Americans to refrain from decisive action until the situation was nearly impossible.
One such moment came in late 1776. The British had captured the colonies’ largest city, New York, in an overwhelming fashion that demonstrated their mastery of military tactics and discipline, and subsequently seized control of New Jersey. The enlistments of many of the soldiers of the American army were due to expire soon. At that crucial juncture, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The American Crisis — “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will in this crisis shrink from the service of his country...” — aroused renewed devotion to the cause.
Above all towered George Washington, leading, inspiring, and giving courage to the men under his command. He fashioned something completely without precedent: an army of free men of very different backgrounds and values. And he led them in a common cause. In one early incident, two regiments from different parts of the country erupted in fighting. Washington plunged into the melee on his horse, dismounted and grabbed two of the tallest and brawniest of the combatants by the neck, and shook them and talked to them until calm was restored.
The briefest sketch of Washington’s character, as with Lincoln, cannot fail to stir unhappy comparisons to our own time. His greatest lifelong fear was that he might ever do something that would bring eternal dishonor. Self-governance, discipline, reason, and restraint were the keys to his code of honor. He gave equal weight to physical and moral courage, and defined liberty, at the personal level, in terms of freedom from unruly passions and the ability to resist temptation. Virtues, for Washington, were not a natural inheritance, but something to be acquired through discipline and training.
His Farewell Address is still studied today. His letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, in which he describes religious liberty as the proper course of a liberal polity and not to be viewed as an act of “toleration, as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights,” is not the stuff of Twitter feeds.
He understood the cause of liberty clearly. Like Lincoln after him, Washington came to see slavery as inconsistent with the principles of liberty for which the Revolution was fought, and he freed all his slaves in his will.
Not only did his generalship secure American freedom, but his conduct did as much to determine the American future as the work of more intellectual contemporaries — John Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington scrupulously guarded the principle of civilian control, and refused to become a dictator. King George III exclaimed, when informed that Washington would return to Mount Vernon after the British surrender at Yorktown, “If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington did precisely that. And again at the end of his second term, he resisted all entreaties to stand unopposed for yet another term.
IN HIS CONCLUDING PARAGRAPH, Fischer takes direct aim at those 20th-century scholars who have tried to turn the American past “into a record of crime and folly.” And he insists that the powerful story he has told shows that “Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit — and so are we.”
That conclusion points to one of the tragedies in America today: the loss of a common constitutional creed and any sense of a shared national story. Most young Americans today are ignorant of the basic structure of republican government — as attitudes toward freedom of speech and due process on many campuses demonstrate — and of the liberty for which the Revolution was waged.
Those who are not uninformed are misinformed. The advanced placement history curriculum and national exam have been hijacked by progressive academics who would turn American history into nothing besides slavery and depredations against Native Americans. American history in the new dispensation is taught not as a national enterprise — The American Experience, as my AP history text was titled — but as a series of monographs on different ethnic and racial groups.
Similarly, the loss of all connection to the Jewish national story is a major factor in the plummeting Jewish identity of American Jews. (Of course, for many of those Jews, the Jewish story is only partly theirs, as a consequence of intermarriage.) Reform theologian Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College, writes, “Jews of the next generation will increasingly be people with no Jewish childhood memories and no obvious reasons to maintain Jewish friends, associations, and causes at the expense of non-Jewish ones.”
For American Jews, loss of connection to the collective Jewish story is a matter of individual survival as Jews. In Israel, loss of the Jewish story threatens the very raison d’etre of the state and endangers national survival. Still in 2000, but for the one-man campaign of Yoram Hazony, the academics in the Education Ministry were prepared to foist a world history book on ninth-graders totally devoid of any identification or empathy with the Jewish People. As Hillel Halkin described the text, “Nowhere is the ninth-grader reminded that he belongs to the people that he is reading about, that he is flesh of their flesh, blood of their blood; nowhere that their story is his.”
For Torah Jews, countless mitzvos, the chagim, the weekly parshah, all reinforce the sense of being part of a very long story. But that story has huge gaps, as I know from teaching Jewish history in a post–high school seminary. Post-exilic history up to, and sometimes including, the Holocaust, is a closed box. And thus the miracle of Jewish survival as a solitary sheep among 70 wolves is lost.
Deeper study of that history would strengthen our self-understanding as part of a long chain in which each of us plays a crucial role of transmission to the next link on the chain.
Yonoson Rosenblum can be contacted directly at email@example.com.