On Christmas 2009 I was given a copy of Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fisher. For me this account of Washington crossing the Delaware has become a book for the years of Obama’s presidency, for Fisher’s story is a tale of courage and perseverance in the face of disaster.
To search the writings of the men and women who were there (hundreds of firsthand accounts survive) is to find that they believed the American cause was very near collapse on Christmas night in 1776. In five months of heavy fighting after the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s army had suffered many disastrous defeats and gained no major victories. It had lost 90 percent of its strength. The small remnant who crossed the Delaware River were near the end of their resources, and they believed another defeat could destroy the Cause, as they called it.1
In the Editor’s Note at the beginning of the book, James McPherson writes:
No single day in history was more decisive for the creation of the United States than Christmas 1776….Of all the pivotal events in American history, none was more important than what happened on those nine days from December 25, 1776, through January 3, 1777.2
This providential span of victories stemmed not only from the character and leadership of George Washington, but also “from the acts and choices of ordinary people.” Fisher says for those Americans:
…Their greatest advantage was the moral strength of a just cause. They were fighting on their own ground, in defense of homes and families, for ideas of liberty and freedom. They had a different test of success. Their opponents had to conquer; the Americans needed only to survive. After the occupation of New Jersey, and British maltreatment of prisoners, Americans became highly motivated by the cruel experience of oppression.
Another strength was their religion. The Americans were a deeply spiritual people, with an abiding faith that sustained them in adversity….
In the dark days of 1776, Americans reached deep into this reservoir of strength and improvised a new way of managing a war….3
Words for today, are they not?
After the last few years, and especially after the last couple of weeks, yesterday I was thinking how hollow it seemed to celebrate the Fourth of July, but then I remembered these words that open Fisher’s last chapter:
On New Year’s Day in 1777, Robert Morris sent George Washington a letter that rings strangely in a modern ear. “The year 1776 is over,” Morris wrote. “I am heartily glad of it and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another.” Washington shared that feeling, which was far from our very own. We celebrate 1776 as the most glorious year in American history. They remembered it as an agony, especially the “dark days” of autumn.4
As Americans lived through those dark days of 1776, they had no future perspective of their times. Neither do we as we live through these dark days of coercion and usurpation of power. Do we have “the advantage of the moral strength of a just cause”? We do. Should we call on God to give us an abiding faith in Him that will sustain us in adversity? We should. Fisher writes, “This is a story of real choices that living people actually made.”5 We can make those choices.
Have a glorious Fourth!
1,2,3,4,5David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York) 5, ix, 368, 363, 364.