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The Christmas That Saved America

by Gary Palmer | President, Alabama Policy Institute

Given the current condition of the American economy, there might be a temptation to view what Americans are spending this Christmas as the Christmas that saves the American economy…or least keeps it from going deeper into recession. But regardless of what Americans spend this Christmas, you would have to look farther back to find the Christmas that saved America.

By the end of November 1776, American independence was on life support. Gen. George Washington had just suffered a devastating defeat and lost the city of New York to the British. Not only was New York City entirely in British hands, Washington made a strategic blunder by not evacuating his forces from Fort Washington and Fort Lee, on the Hudson River.

British and Hessian forces attacked and captured Fort Washington and Gen. Washington was forced to abandon the fort, leaving behind desperately needed guns, stores of rations, munitions, equipment and hundreds of tents. Washington’s battered and ill-equipped men were forced to retreat southward across New Jersey.

Washington’s army of almost 20,000 in August was now down to less than 6,000 and without the critical equipment and supplies not only to fight, but to survive a winter encampment. To make matters worse, on December 1st the enlistment of 2,000 New Jersey and Maryland militiamen expired and they left the army.

On December 8th, this desperate force crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. With sickness and desertion also taking a heavy toll, Washington had only about 3,000 soldiers left under his immediate command. As Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote, it was “… a very pitiful army to trust the liberties of America on.” At this point, it appeared that America’s quest for independence would soon be crushed.

On December 20th, a remnant of about 2,000 soldiers joined Washington’s army. These men were described as being in more wretched condition than the soldiers in Washington’s camp and were formerly under the command of Gen. Charles Lee who had been captured. The army now numbered about 7,500, with only about 6,000 fit for duty. With an army dispirited, undersupplied, undermanned, and facing an enemy certain of victory, Washington saw an opportunity. He would cross the Delaware and attack.

On December 23rd, Washington ordered the reading of Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The Crisis to inspire his men: “… These are 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 who stands it now deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”

On Christmas night, Washington led 2,400 soldiers across the Delaware and to victory the next morning at Trenton. With this victory, Washington saved his army. While great credit is justifiably given to Gen. Washington for the boldness of his decision to cross the Delaware River and attack Trenton, it is not Washington alone whom we should marvel and revere.

We should also stand in awe of the volunteers who did not abandon the cause for freedom. They crossed the Delaware and marched in ragged clothes and with bloody feet across snow and ice to defeat the Hessians at Trenton, and a few days later, the British at Princeton. These were not summer soldiers. These were men willing to suffer discomfort and danger for a cause greater than themselves. These were the men who crossed an icy river on Christmas Day and saved America for future generations.

In some respects, the heroic figure of Gen. Washington represents the hope that so many Americans have for restoring America. Far too many Americans have a false hope that all that is necessary to restore our nation is to elect the right person to lead while the rest of us go about our business. That is futile. Just like that Christmas Day in 1776, what mattered most was the willingness of the men who boarded the boats to cross the ice-choked river with General Washington.

In an article he wrote for Christmas 2010, Rich Lowry quoted Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote, “Our republics cannot exist long in prosperity. We require adversity and appear to possess most of the republican spirit when most depressed.”

As our history has proved time and again, America is at her best when we are faced with great challenges, not when we are flush with success and great with prosperity. The question for us today is simple: had we been on the icy banks of the Delaware River on Christmas Day in 1776, would we have gotten in the boat?

The answer to that question will come in the months and years ahead as we see how we respond to the current national crisis.

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