Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Spirit of '76

The most humanistic pronouncement in the history of political tracts, that which asserts "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" are among man's "certain inalienable rights," is the utopian secular American signature written into our Declaration of Independence. That was the spirit of '76 and a quality of political imagination that has been difficult to live up to ever since. Certainly, Thomas Jefferson's ebullient claims taken at face value are abstract but in the proper contexts they can be defined with certain qualifications. For example, the right to "life" would be the right to proper, affordable health care. "Liberty" would entail a transparent government, the closure of illegal detention centers, proper civilian trials and habeas corpus. The pursuit of happiness is the fuzziest of the three, yet so-called modern day patriots would probably equate it with mass consumption. But if the revolutionaries of 1776 knew their strenuous efforts were undergone so that their descendants could laze around sofas tweeting, facebooking, shopping, and eating "freedom fries," would they have risked their fortunes fighting the formidable British empire? Or might they have stayed home to tend their farms, lamenting that the American Dream in a philosophical sense would always be just that, a dream?

David McCullough's history of George Washington's Continental army in the very grim fighting year of 1776 isn't asking those questions. As an establishment historian, a winner of two Pulitzers, McCullough is strictly concerned with the facts, drawing so generously from a prodigious survey of primary sources it's easy to forget that he's even there. 1776 is a focused work meaning that 1775's Battle of Bunker Hill is mentioned in passing and the battles of Lexington and Concord not at all. Nor are Valley Forge, the Maquis de Lafayette, and Yorktown discussed. As any sixth grader who passed his civics test will tell you, 1776 is the year the Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, but even that monumental convergence of great philosophical minds merits just one paragraph. This book is about one man, George Washington, and his ragtag army.

As a fighting force it was a pretty pathetic sight, the Continental Army. Consider, in his own words, Washington's dire assessment of his underpaid, underfed, undertrained motley ranks:

"Men just dragged from the tender scenes of domestic life-- unaccustomed to the din of arms- totally unacquainted with every kind of military skill, which being followed by a want of confidence in themselves when opposed to troops regularly trained, disciplined, and appointed, superior in knowledge and superior in arms, makes them timid and ready to fly from their own shadows."

Your Average Soldier in Washington's Continental Army

1776 is divided into three parts: the siege of Boston, the battles of New York, and Washington's retreat through New Jersey, into eastern Pennsylvania. McCullough portrays the strategies of the British as well as the American forces in order to create a thorough narrative of the events in the early stage of the war (though to British high command, the word, 'war,' was never used as that would legitimize the conflict as one between sovereign states; 'rebellion' being the preferred epithet.) The British did not want to fight and would have been happy with a capitulation returning things more or less to the prior status quo. In fact, throughout the contest, the British eagerly proffered the olive branch, going so far as to publish a Proclamation granting amnesty to all revolutionaries conditional on their signing of a loyalty oath. That was refused by the rebels, even when it appeared the destruction of the Continental Army and therefore the American military seemed all but certain.

As many Americans would be today, many civilians at the time were perturbed by the revolution, more concerned with commerce than politics. Those so-called "Loyalists" were not necessarily monarchists, but just ordinary people at odds with a sweeping movement, more concerned with property and the safety of their family. Hoping to expedite the end of the war, many of them gave intelligence to the British, jeopardizing secret missions and troop deployments. Had Vegas odds been around in '76 only fools would have wagered on the rebels. Although in Massachusetts the Americans defeated the British in the challenge to command Dorchester Heights (instigating a humiliating Redcoat retreat), the situation went sour in New York, a city that was viewed by both sides as the key to the Hudson River and thus should it be taken by the British they would be able to split the rebels geographically, isolating New England, disrupting communication and supply lines. The Americans spent the spring of that year fortifying south Manhattan and Brooklyn against a formidable British siege: at one point one hundred frigates docked around Staten Island forming the largest Armada ever seen on the continent. But after the Americans lost The Battle of Brooklyn (it's interesting to place the fighting in a modern city context), Washington and his soldiers had to abandon Manhattan, the fortifications, and of course control of the Hudson River. It didn't do well for troop morale. Soldiers deserted in droves often taking their muskets home with them as souvenirs. Many of them, shoeless and hungry, deserted to the enemy.

Leading them in their flight was George Washington, a by-his-bootstraps surveyor-turned-wealthy planter with virtually no military experience prior to the war. What comes across from McCullough's exhaustive research is a plainspoken man of common sense, who was a small town fellow in over his head and knew it:

"Could I have foreseen the difficulties which have come upon us, could I have known that such a backwardness would have been discovered in the old soldiers to the service, all the generals upon earth should not have convinced me of the propriety of delaying an attack upon Boston till this time."

If Washington could have "justified the measure to posterity, and my own conscience," he would have, "retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam." But that's why he's celebrated today as one of the Great American Heroes, because he believed in the Cause so fervently, that he was willing to risk his livelihood, and being a self-made man also had much to lose. Today he is revered as a national godhead but in the early stages of war, he lacked decisiveness and good judgment. Had the British known just how dire his situation was and had pursued the Americans beyond New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, it is likely the revolution would have failed and Washington would have disappeared into history books as a footnote. Perhaps, our journey to autonomy would have progressed like Canada's, evolving into dominion status, a bloodless passage towards sovereignty.

Crossing the Delaware

But Washington put on a good fight, which of course being primarily a military history, composes the climax of 1776. Famously on Christmas night, General Washington and his forces crossed the icy floes of the Delaware River in order to ambush the mercenary Hessian soldiers quartered in Trenton, New Jersey. The Hessians, perhaps drunk with holiday spirits, were properly surprised and routed. As far as battles go, it was hardly decisive in what would become an eight-year struggle. But McCullough treats it as a turning point in the war, a desperately needed morale injection as well as confirmation of Washington's leadership skills.

What makes 1776 a good read is the harrowing portrayal of how just how close Americans were to being vanquished. Then, just as now, to speak out and especially act against an unpopular government required tremendous courage. Had the rebels been forced to surrender under British terms they might have been executed or at the least had their livelihood ruined. They risked their lives because they seemed to really believe in what was at the time a newfangled concept of civil liberty, those certain unalienable rights. Without faith in these ambitions-- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness-- the revolution would have likely failed.

Brave Men Putting Their Names to Independence

Today should we be asking the same questions as our Founding Fathers regarding the legitimacy of government? Does Congress and the President really intend to guarantee the rights of all citizens and if it does not, what is to be done? If you want to go back to that same prized parchment penned by Mr. Jefferson, he suggests something overlooked and ignored by the establishment hypocrites and power brokers today, that is:

"That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of the these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness."

It's something we should all think about come every 4th of July after the hot dogs and beer and pleasure seeking. Freedom is more than picking through the supermarket, the television, or the information superhighway, and its intrinsic value is revealed to us when we witness demonstrations in other countries, as seen most recently in Burma and Iran. What happened in 1776 was a movement, a collection of passionate philosophers who contemplated a better reality. This process, without proper liberal reform and better guarantees for the burgeoning poor and jobless, is likely to repeat itself once a crisis brings us to a breaking point.

The revolutionaries shocked the world. It happens from time to time. Let's just hope that when it happens again, it doesn't take eight years of war to recognize that a new humanitarian approach is the better way.

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