While visiting relatives in Florida, my father-in-law and his wife gave me a replica of the Declaration of Independence, properly gnarled, crinkled, and looking like an oak leaf. Its designed to look pretty frail. It should. That’s because while we celebrate our Independence Day as the day we officially announced our break with Great Britain, 1776 was the worst year of the Revolutionary War.
It’s easy to look at the size of the two countries, or look through the lens of today’s forces, or through some post-hoc analysis having known the outcome, and see our victory in the Revolutionary War as a foregone conclusion. But history teachers generally know the real story. Our freedom hung by a thread in that terrible year.
General George Washington’s strategic genius at getting General Henry Knox to move cannons from Ft. Ticonderoga to Dorchester Heights to force the British out of Boston was offset by the terrible news that our invasion of Canada failed outside of Quebec City, leading to the death of General Montgomery, and nearly every participant being wounded, captured, or fleeing at top speed.
In New York, General William Howe’s 22,000 Hessians and British absolutely crushed Washington’s 20,000 in August at what became known as the Battle of Long Island, the largest engagement of the entire war. Only fog and the cover of darkness saved Washington’s army from being completely destroyed.
New York City was captured, and Washington was again defeated at the Battle of White Plains. But the biggest blow came with the capture of the entire garrison of thousands at Ft. Washington. The only positive came from the discovery of an American officer’s wife who defended his post after he was slain. The impressed British paroled her.
Washington’s remaining troops had to flee for the lives, pursued across New Jersey by Hessian troops. A top American general was captured. You can read all about this and other sad details in David McCullough’s book 1776.
Perhaps now we can understand Thomas Paine’s words in “Common Sense,” where he wrote “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 by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”
Sure enough, Washington was able to turn the tide that Christmas Day’s eve with his famous crossing the Delaware and surprise victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey.
But the lesson is clear for all Americans. No matter the battle, be it military, political, economic, educational or social, we can all learn something from the endurance of the Founding Fathers and Revolutionary War soldiers. Nothing is worth having that should come so easily to us. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and work for what matters.