Thoughts for Independence Day: Reflections on Washington’s Crossing of the Delaware, on the Power of Rhetoric to Rally Allies to a Just Cause, and on the Level of Commitment Necessary to Be Victorious in That Cause
By Ken K. Gourdin
It was December 1776, and prospects looked bleak indeed for the American Revolutionaries against their British opponents. Army enlistments were dropping; desertions were common; amid the hardships—a string of sound defeats by the British, sickness, lack of proper food, lack of adequate shelter and resulting exposure to the elements—faced by Washington and his men, it was difficult both to persuade those whose terms of service were about to end to reenlist and to recruit new soldiers who would be loyal to the American cause.
It was in these dire straits that General George Washington planned several daring crossings of the Delaware River to from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, first to confront German forces loyal to the British under German Colonel Johann Rall’s command, and a short time later to confront British forces under Lord Cornwallis’s command. Odds of success were long indeed. One of Washington’s men, Henry Knox, described the first crossing as “infinite[ly] . . . difficult[ ].”1 It was while beset by the hardships described above that Thomas Paine, whose earlier work Common Sense had rallied even doubtful patriots to the cause of the rebels, produced yet another work, The American Crisis, intended to rally flagging spirits to the cause. This excerpt is familiar to many an American schoolchild:
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 his country; but he that stands 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.
Indeed, I draw inspiration from Paine’s words not merely because they were uttered in an attempt to inspire patriotism. I have faced—and continue to face—challenges on many fronts which are “not easily conquered.” The password to gain admittance past the sentry line guarding the landing area on the New Jersey side of the river illustrates the level of commitment Washington felt would be needed if the operation were to succeed against such long odds: “Victory or death.”3 By God’s grace, Washington and his men were able to prevail, both against these long odds, first against Colonel Rall’s forces, than against General Cornwallis’s forces.
Not only does Thomas Paine’s work illustrate the power of rhetoric to rally downhearted American troops (and civilians, for that matter) against their enemies, the British. That power also is illustrated in Patrick Henry’s fiery declaration before the Virginia Conventions (Virginia’s provisional government which formed after the British royal governor dissolved its House of Burgesses), “Give me liberty or give me death!”3 And in Benjamin Franklin’s declaration to his fellow signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” And in the Declaration of Independence itself, which closed with these words: “. . . [F]or the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to ourselves, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
While I have written before that often, true heroism involves being willing to live for a just cause rather than simply being willing to die for such a cause, how grateful I am for men such as these, who were willing to stand by their rhetoric to the point of losing their lives, if necessary. And how grateful I am for the freedoms I enjoy today as a result. I stand on the shoulders of giants. Happy Independence Day, everyone!