This being Independence Day, it got me to thinking about the contrast between where we are today and where we were when it all started 237 years ago.
If you’ve ever wondered why that 555-foot monolith on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is named after the first president of the United States, read a good book on George Washington. Let me tell you, the guy was one tough dude. I believe he honestly thought he was invincible – and he was, at least until an illness, generally believed to have been acute laryngitis, took him down in 1799, just three years after his retirement to his beloved Mount Vernon estate.
They don’t make wars like the American War of Independence anymore. No antiseptic missile strikes that allow you to kill without having to see blood and guts flying in every direction. No, the colonial patriots had to fight the English up close — real close … in freezing weather … sweltering hot weather … with very little food … too few supplies … and a lack of manpower. Long before Winston Churchill came along, the colonial troops discovered firsthand that war truly is hell.
On top of all the physical trauma they endured, the troops often had to go without pay. In fact, after the Battle of Trenton, Washington offered officers whose tour of duty was running out $10 to re-enlist. He was willing to do anything and everything to win – including sleeping on the ground right alongside his troops on more than one occasion.
Had another general other than Washington led the revolutionary troops, one has to wonder how they could have possibly defeated the world’s most powerful military force from across the pond. Even so, at the outset, most colonists were skeptical about Washington’s ability to triumph over the dreaded British military. And for most of the eight-year war, it looked like their skepticism had been justified.
Keep in mind that throughout the long war there was a civilian battle of words going on between – you guessed it – the hawks (“patriots” who were willing to fight for their freedom) and the doves (“loyalists” who stood with Great Britain). And, interestingly, a similar war of words was being fought among the populace in Great Britain as well. Many Brits did not feel that fighting a war 3,000 miles away – at a cost that was draining the economy – was worth it. Sound familiar?
In fact, the British had their own version of 9/11 when John Paul Jones, a former British naval officer who became a colonial patriot, brought the revolution to Great Britain’s doorstep by raiding the west coast of England! Suddenly, what had been an unpopular foreign war was threatening to expand onto British soil. The result was that the anti-war crowd howled its disapproval of the American quagmire even more.
And when, in 1779, the British tried a last-ditch strategy to gain a foothold in the South by sending 1,000 ships to the Port of Charleston in South Carolina, all hell broke loose. I doubt many Americans today realize it, but it actually became the country’s first civil war, with family members in South Carolina often split between the loyalists and the patriots. The fighting between the two sides was not only vicious, but often vindictive.
Nevertheless, if George Washington was anything, he was stubborn. Make that tough and stubborn. On one occasion, he handed down a sentence for two officers to face a firing squad for treason. Then, in a move that made it crystal clear to his troops that he meant business, he ordered the firing squad to be composed of the 12 men who had been the two officers’ accomplices!
That’s harsh … real harsh. Let me tell you, if George Washington had ordered me to eat bugs, I would have asked him how many and how fast. I would not have had the nerve to even ask him if I could wash them down with water.
Thousands of volumes have been written about the American Revolution, detailing every strategy, every battle and every side plot. But when all is said and done, for me what stands out most was George Washington’s incredible toughness and tenacity.
He undoubtedly would have been appalled to see what wusses modern Americans have become. Can you imagine the girly-men presidential candidates we have today – advocates of never-ending entitlements for Americans addicted to the good life – facing off against George Washington? He would have brought them to their knees without having to do much more than employ his Clint Eastwood stare.
The colonists’ victory over Great Britain – against unfathomable odds – had to be the greatest comeback in the annals of war. It’s enough to make one feel ashamed of himself for stewing over every little obstacle that crosses his path in our cushy 21st century America.
After the Constitution was ratified (in my opinion, a step backward for America), Washington was unanimously elected the country’s first president. He took the oath of office on April 30, 1789, in New York City, served two terms, then voluntarily retired to his beautiful Mount Vernon estate.
It’s significant to recall that in his farewell address, George Washington warned the American people against long-term foreign alliances and said we should not allow political parties or geography to divide us. That, more than anything else, answers the question of how we got to where we are today from where we were when it all started 237 years ago.