Every year, when the Fourth of July rolls around, my mind always wanders back to the beginning, to the birth of our nation, back to George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine – all the legendary figures and grand deeds of American independence.
The names are familiar to us even though the events they’re associated with are slipping from our collective memories: we’re already 43 years past our bicentennial. A couple generations have come of age with no memory of the tall ships in New York and Boston in July 1976.
Nevertheless, we still faithfully celebrate the Fourth every summer with picnics, parades, patriotic songs, and fireworks.
And, each year, it gets evermore easy to accept it as an article of faith that the Founding Fathers declared independence, defeated the British, and brought forth a new nation that grew from sea-to-shining sea. From our vantage point in history, it’s all very neatly done up.
But in fact, nothing was certain at all.
About fifteen years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough published a book entitled 1776. That year is famous, of course, for the Declaration of Independence, and today we look back on it rather fondly. But the people living through it had a markedly different opinion of 1776.
In Revolutionary America there weren’t many citizens who believed there was going to be a positive outcome to a war that many of them never wanted. The revolutionaries had the active support of perhaps 45% of the population, while about 20% remained loyal to the British Crown.
Victory in the war was far from assured, and the man Congress selected to lead the American forces knew it. When George Washington – who had been retired from the military for fifteen years – was named commander, he cautioned Congress, “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
According to McCullough, if Washington “saw the responsibility as too great for his ability, it was because he had a realistic idea of how immense that responsibility would be. For such a trust, to lead an undisciplined, poorly armed volunteer force of farmers and tradesmen against the best-trained, best-equipped, most formidable military force on earth – and with so much riding on the outcome – was, in reality, more than any man was qualified for.”
For Washington, the troubles began right away. During the Siege of Boston, in the winter of 1775-76, deserting American troops told the British that “Washington’s army was tired and unpaid, that there was too little clothing to keep warm, and that most of the men longed to go home.”
Despite the hardships, the siege of the city was successful. But forcing the British to flee Boston was not a harbinger of good things to come. For much of the rest of 1776, Washington’s command strategy appeared to be “defeat and retreat,” as his troops lost one battle after another.
A lot of Americans believe that July 4, 1776 marks the day we won the war for independence. In fact, at that point in the war, victory seemed but a distant dream.
Nevertheless, in the summer of 1776 – even with morale low and desertions from the army high – Congress voted to declare independence. The timing of publishing a formal declaration of independence during a war where your side is getting badly beaten at every turn seems audacious. And it was. But it’s exactly what they needed.
When it was published, Washington had the Declaration of Independence – with Jefferson’s magnificent preamble declaring it “self-evident” that “all men are created equal,” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” – read to the assembled troops.
“At a stroke,” McCullough writes, “the Continental Congress had made the Glorious Cause of America more glorious still, for all the world to know, and also to give every citizen soldier at this critical juncture something still larger and more compelling for which to fight.”
The euphoria of declaring independence, however, quickly gave way to the reality of winning it. Washington promptly lost New York City to the British. With his tired and diminishing army he fled southward through New Jersey.
In August 1776, “Washington had had an army of 20,000. In the three months since, he had lost four battles – at Brooklyn, Kips Bay, White Plains, and Fort Washington – then gave up Fort Lee without a fight.” By November, he had only about 3,500 troops under his personal command.
For all his abilities, McCullough tells us that Washington “was not a brilliant strategist or tactician, not a gifted orator, not an intellectual. He had made serious mistakes in judgment. But he learned steadily from experience. Above all, Washington never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up.”
Just when all hope seemed lost, in the final days of 1776, Washington launched the “brilliant stroke” – the daring Christmas-night crossing of the Delaware River and the subsequent victories at Trenton and Princeton – that changed history.
The Revolutionary War, McCullough says, “was a longer, far more arduous, and more painful struggle than later generations would understand or sufficiently appreciate. By the time it ended” – seven years later – “it had taken the lives of an estimated 25,000 Americans, or roughly 1 percent of the population. In percentage of lives lost, it was the most costly war in American history, except for the Civil War.”
For the people who lived through it, 1776 was a year “of all-too-few victories, of sustained suffering, disease, hunger, desertion, cowardice, disillusionment, defeat, terrible discouragement, and fear…but also of phenomenal courage and bedrock devotion to country...”
The dark days of that tumultuous year led Thomas Paine to write his famous lines: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Looking back from our perch in 2019 it all seems so securely anchored in history. But not for those involved. “Especially,” McCullough says, “for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning…” for those who had witnessed the battles and suffered through the losses, “the outcome seemed little short of a miracle.”
We, living here in the early years of this new century in a free country, are the recipients of that miracle. May we never forget what has been given to us.
Happy Fourth of July everyone.