With the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Americans suddenly found themselves in the middle of a war. No one knew how long it would last, what sacrifices would be demanded, or even if we would win. Today we are involved in another war against the powers of evil. This conflict also came upon us suddenly and without warning. Again we have no way of knowing with certainty how long the struggle will last, the full measure of sacrifice it will call for, or whether we will, in the end, prevail.
One of the books I’m using to research the third volume in my American Patriot series is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. As I read about the hardships the soldiers of the Revolution and their families endured, I am deeply impressed by the vision and values that guided the patriots. Fischer gives a moving account of the critical battles of Trenton and Princeton during the dark winter of 1776-77, when the lamp of Revolution flickered for what appeared to be one last time and came very near to being extinguished. All that kept the flame of liberty alive was the unconquerable resolution of those committed to the battle.
Honor and humanity were their touchstones and their guides. At first, Washington’s relations with his New England troops were difficult, even contentious. The independent attitudes of these small farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, and laborers were very different from tho, se of the wealthy Southern planters among whom he lived, and made it hard to maintain discipline. Over time, however, he learned that while these men could not be driven, they could be led.
Fischer notes that through the trial by fire that they shared, Washington came to treat these Yankees, whom he initially viewed with disdain, as men of honor. The American army of that day became the only military force in the world that treated even privates as gentlemen. This was a new concept for that day: that moral condition, rather than social rank, is what defines a gentleman; and that honor is a principle of human dignity instead of an entitlement of rank, status, or gender.
These new ethical values took practical form in the general orders Washington issued forbidding his troops from plundering anyone, even the Tories, who opposed the rebellion. Washington frequently reminded his troops that they were fighting for liberty and that even the enemy deserved to be treated humanely. He also established strict standards for the treatment of prisoners of war and noncombatants. In contrast to the cruelty British and Hessian troops often directed against women and children, Washington ordered that they were to be treated with “humanity and tenderness.”
In spite of the flaws and failures all too common to human beings then and now, these values persist in American culture today. It is amazing to think that this vision of human worth and dignity was established at the very beginning of our nation’s existence and still forms the foundation on which it stands. Believing that they would win the victory only if they deserved it, Washington and his officers cared deeply about how their actions were viewed by the world and by God. How familiar these ideals sound in relation to the war Americans are fighting today to defeat terrorism! Now, as then, our goal is to ensure that all people everywhere can enjoy the liberty and human dignity that are their birthright as children of God.
Those of us who care deeply about where we Americans came from and where we are going will never allow the heroic sacrifices of our forebears to be forgotten nor the vision and values for which they spilled their blood to be abandoned. Still today we believe that we will win the fight only if we deserve victory. Let us each strive to live in such a way that we do.
* Painting: “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emmanuel Leutze, 1851.