In 1776, the American army lost battle after battle, being chased from New York all across New Jersey; finally reaching the Delaware River, they grabbed every boat they could find to escape across it. The British, snug in Trenton, figured they’d simply wait till the river’s winter freeze, then walk across to finish off the Americans and their impertinent revolution.
There wasn’t much left of those soldiers, a few thousand weary stragglers, many hurt, sick, poorly clothed, shoeless, hungry. (Some no doubt were gay.) Many of their enlistments were due to end in a few days. Thomas Paine, encamped with them, now wrote The American Crisis: “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Though that famous line is often quoted, few today actually understand it. In the language of the time, “try” meant “test.”
General George Washington’s soul was being tested. On the whole a failure till that point, now he was really up against it. What to do? One last roll of the dice: go for broke. On December 25, 1776, he and his men got back in those boats, back across that river, in the teeth of a snowstorm, and then marched nine miles to attack the British and their Hessian hired guns at Trenton. The bad weather spoiled the plan for a pre-dawn surprise attack. And Washington was warned that spies had probably tipped off the Brits. But there was no turning back.
A spy had in fact alerted the British commander; but he complacently ignored the message – which was found the next day in the pocket of his corpse.
We won the battle. Others are usually considered more important; yet had we failed at Trenton, the war would have ended there, with the Declaration of Independence not a beacon for humanity but a beaten idea. I hate to think how different today’s world might be.
But the 1776 Delaware crossing means even more to me than that. To me it stands for everything that is splendid about America and about the human soul.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American life.” But America is all about second acts. It’s the land of reinvention. “The New World” – the old one seemed mired in the past, and emigrants to America believed they could make a new and better one. America was humanity starting fresh.
It’s a land of people who pick themselves up off the floor and rise to their second acts – like those bedraggled men, honored be their memory, who got back into those boats on a freezing Christmas night in 1776 to make the supreme effort for a transcending ideal.
But those human qualities are not unique to this country. This striving in the face of adversity, this refusal to be beaten, this greatness of spirit, inspires my love for all humanity. And what I love especially about my own country is that it’s where these human qualities have their finest flowering, where the best in us can be most fully realized.