Excerpted from We the People: Birth of a Nation
©2004 by James F. Gauss
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political
prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . .
And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality
can be maintained without religion . . .
Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national
morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle.
First President of the United States of America
On July 4, 1776, 56 very courageous and principled patriots of American freedom―who risked everything for the sake of future generations―signed one of the greatest documents in our country’s rather brief history, the Declaration of Independence. This cause for freedom was not taken lightly or without counting the cost, but was deliberated over a long series of town meetings throughout the thirteen colonies and in two Continental Congresses. Those gatherings of dedicated and fervent colonial patriots and opposition Loyalists were prayer-led, yet they often resulted in heated and angry debates and discussions over the desire of the majority to break away from the oppressive and taxing rule of the British crown.
Such freedom and separation from the Crown of England was a decidedly desperate measure and the colonists’ hopes for a truly free, unoppressed society was far from assured. England had the power and the money to go against any insurrection the American colonists could muster. But the British overlooked two things―the divine providence of God and a young man named George Washington.
America’s Revolutionary War for independence had already started a year earlier when delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania signed “The Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms” on July 6, 1775 (see Volume I of We the People). This action was deemed necessary after a small contingent of colonial Massachusetts militia, in mid-April of that year, engaged and inflicted serious casualties on a regiment of British regulars who were under the skilled leadership of General Thomas Gage and Lieutenant Colonel Francis Smith.
Somewhat ironically, the Declaration’s signing came on the twenty-second anniversary of the surrender of Fort Necessity (southeast of present-day Uniontown, Pennsylvania) by then-Colonel George Washington, who was overrun by a superior French military during the beginning of the last of the French and Indian wars. These “wars” were a series of sporadic territorial battles between French and British forces that were largely fought in the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada from 1689 to 1763. Washington’s less than laudatory pre-Revolutionary War military career ended in 1758 at age 26.
A youthful George Washington
At the age of 21, Washington had already involved himself in the defense of Virginia’s western boundaries against the incursions of the French and their marauding Native American allies. In 1755, he volunteered to serve as the adjutant to British Major General Edward Braddock. In early July of that year, Braddock and a 1400 man force of mostly British regulars and some colonial militia were headed toward the French stronghold, Fort Duquesne, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers in southwestern Pennsylvania (present-day Pittsburgh).
Braddock, although age 60, had never led a military force into battle. He naively planned to lay siege against the fort with his field and siege cannons after a hundred mile meandering journey through thick forest, across the Monongahela and catch the French by surprise. But the French got wind of the British advance and dispatched about 1200 men, mostly tribal allies familiar with the area and hit-and-run tactics.
Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock
On the morning of July 9, 1755, the two armies surprised each other as soon as Braddock’s forces had crossed the river. With superior position and natural cover the French and Indian army completely surrounded Braddock and his men and commenced a brutal massacre. Within three hours of bloody fighting, Braddock had lost over 900 men, dead or wounded. Braddock was gravely wounded and died three days later. Of Braddock’s staff, only the young George Washington survived unscathed.
After retreating to Fort Cumberland (Will’s Creek) in present-day northwestern Maryland, with what was left of the tattered British and colonial troops, Washington took stock of the events and penned a letter to his younger brother, John Augustine Washington, on July 18.
As I have heard since my arrival at this place, a circumstantial account of my death and dying speech, I take this early opportunity of contradicting both, and of assuring you that I now exist and appear in the land of the living by the miraculous care of
Providence, that protected me beyond all human expectation; I had 4 bullets through my coat, and two horses shot under me, and yet escaped unhurt . . .
I am Dear Jack, your most affectionate brother.
That God’s providential hand was upon Washington was not only clear to him, but to others. A month after Washington’s return home to Mount Vernon in Virginia, a local minister, Rev. Samuel Davies, preached a sermon on August 17, 1755, entitled, Religion and Patriotism the Constituents of a Good Soldier, to a company of Virginia volunteers. As he praised the patriotic spirit and military enthusiasm of this militia, he added:
“As a remarkable instance of this, I may point out to the public that heroic youth, Colonel Washington, whom I cannot but hope Providence has hitherto preserved in so signal [outstanding] a manner for some important service to his country.”
Despite the inglorious defeat, Washington and the colonial militia learned one important lesson that would serve them well during the revolution to come. They would remember that despite the overwhelming odds in favor of trained British regulars, they could be defeated with surprise and cunning tactics.
In a letter to fellow Virginian, George Mason, on April 5, 1769, Washington voiced his strong opposition to “our lordly Masters in Great Britain [and their] deprivation of American freedom . . . .” At this point, he wanted colonists to pursue all means of peaceful rebellion against the Crown’s tyranny and saw taking up arms as the last resort.
However, if such calculated tactics should fail to persuade the king to relent, then Washington made his ultimate position known to Mason:
“That no man should scruple [doubt], or hesitate a moment to use arms in defence [sic] of so valuable a blessing, on which all the good and evil of life depends; is clearly my opinion. . . .”
Six years later, after the battles of Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, all-out war with Britain was imminent. A second Continental Congress was called and convened on May 10, 1775 in Philadelphia and met throughout the War for Independence (eventually disbanding on October 10, 1788 to make room for America’s new form of government). While many delegates had hopes of a peaceful resolution with Britain, others voiced a strong avocation of immediate independence from the crown. As a cautionary measure for the protection of the colonies, members of the Congress established the Continental Army and on June 17, 1775, commissioned George Washington as its Commander-in-Chief.
After the Congress approved The Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms it made one last ditch effort on July 8, 1775 for a peaceful solution to their grievances as they sent their Olive Branch Petition (Volume I of We the People) to King George III. He rejected it, forcing the revolutionary hand of the Congress and the colonists to clench more tightly in defiance.
Throughout the diminutive state of New Jersey where I grew up, over one hundred battles of the six-year Revolutionary War of 1775-1781 were fought. George Washington and his Continental Army would spend almost half of the American Revolutionary period in New Jersey. The state was the focal point of the Revolution because of its strategic location which separated the British Army stationed in New York from the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. It was a bloody, desperate war for the soul and freedom of America that pitched the seasoned British and Hessian (German mercenary) forces against the hastily organized ragtag Continental Army of farmers, merchants and politicians and led by the somewhat unproven-in-battle, George Washington.
The Revolution had a less than promising beginning under Washington. During the summer of 1776, Washington’s troops constructed Fort Lee in northeastern New Jersey along the Hudson River and Fort Washington across the same river in what is now upper Manhattan in New York. During the latter part of August, Washington’s 25,000 member raw and undisciplined Continental forces, the 88-member flotilla of the British Navy and the 30,000 British Regulars were on a collision course on the west end of Long Island. On Thursday, August 22, 20,000 British troops were ferried across The Narrows from Staten Island to the southwest shore of Long Island. The defense of the island along the East River was poorly planned by the Continentals and the superior British forces quickly out-flanked them and virtually surrounded them by the early afternoon of August 27. But for some unknown reason, the British army under the command of General William Howe failed to advance and press their now 3-to-1 advantage over the colonial force. Instead, Howe ordered his men to dig trenches 500 yards from the Patriot’s fortifications and then waited. The British Regulars had already inflicted casualties upon the Patriots at a rate of 12 to 1, with the Continental Army losing over 3,000 men killed, wounded or captured in the first five days of fighting. Howe figured there was no need to hurry the ultimate outcome and his men needed rest.
During the two days that followed, when General Howe had planned his advance, a fierce rainstorm with howling winds prevented his naval fleet from entering the East River where he could seal off any Continental Army retreat. Under the cover of the driving rain, the ensuing nightfall and the dense fog that arose on the morning of August 30, Washington was able to evacuate his entire army with much of their equipment, guns, horses and supplies across the East River to the island of Manhattan. As the fog lifted, the British were greeted with a vacated battlefield and a hollow victory.
British Major-General James Grant, who led the southern prong of the advance, would write to his friend, Paymaster Richard Rigby, three days later about the surprising turn of events.
. . . We cannot yet account for their Precipitate Retreat, their Flight must be owing to a Quarrel amongst themselves or to an apprehension of being cut off, their Retreat to New York which by the way was impossible, their works were very strong, the Ground not so well taken up as I expected to find it, but they might have waited with great safety and have given us much trouble.
By mid-November, Fort Washington fell to the British and a few days later Washington was forced to retreat from Fort Lee. Washington and his small band of 2000 men continued their retreat westward across central New Jersey until they reached Trenton, New Jersey in early December. From there they ferried across the Delaware River to encamp in the relative safety of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
To the arrogant British commanders and the tired and beaten American infantrymen, it must have seemed that America’s upstart revolution was over before it barely began. The Continental Army was seriously outnumbered and woefully unprepared and under supplied. Their some- what reluctant leader was learning his command by trial and error, rather than from a treasure chest of successful military campaigns of the past.
But there was a miracle on the horizon. With his troop morale at its lowest point, Washington devised a daring plan of counter-attack as the British and Hessian forces settled in at Trenton and additional British forces bivouacked at Princeton, New Jersey. On the night of Christmas, 1776, Washington led his 2,400 men quietly across the ice-choked Delaware River, landing at what was then called Johnson’s Ferry (current day Washington Crossing State Park) about eight miles up the river from Trenton. In a pre-dawn attack, Washington completely surprised the Hessians. Heavy fighting over the following week, much of it along the Assunpink River, resulted in the small Continental Army surrounding and defeating the British-Hessian troops encamped at Trenton in two separate encounters. Washington then marched his troops northward about ten miles on January 3, 1777, where he engaged and defeated a small force of British soldiers wintering at Princeton.
After these three surprising victories, and with troop morale restored, Washington continued his march northward another forty miles where his troops camped for the winter at Morristown, New Jersey.
Twice during America’s fight for independence Washington would over-winter his battle-weary troops in this north central New Jersey village just a short ten miles from my boyhood home.
By the fall of 1777 America’s revolutionary effort and Washing- ton’s command was in doubt. In an attempt to defend Philadelphia, he and his troops were soundly defeated on September 11 in the Battle of Brandy- wine southwest of Philadelphia. The British now occupied the capital of the Continental Congress. On October 4, Washington tried a counterattack at Germantown just north of the city, but it failed. After this second defeat, his discontented officers and members of the Congress were calling for his removal from his command. However, Washington soon led his troops to a victory over advancing Hessian troops at Fort Mercer. He then aban- doned the fort and by mid-December he and his now 12,000-man army were setting up camp in the rolling hills of southeastern Pennsylvania at Valley Forge, just west of Philadelphia. There, the Continental Army would face the brutal winter of 1777-1778 with unbearable want and misery.
It was not until the defeat of the British General Cornwallis at the Battle of Yorktown in southeastern Virginia in 1781 that the colonists’ hopes of independence were realized. With the help of the French, the Continental Army decisively ended Britain’s rule on the American continent.
Eight years later, George Washington, the first President of the newly formed United States of America, expressed his opinion about, and his hopes for this new union as he concluded his First Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789:
Having thus imparted to you my sentiments as they have been awakened by the occasion which brings us together, I shall take my present leave; but not without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquillity, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this Government must depend.
This volume of We the People only covers a twenty-five year span of time in the history of America. However, it is a time that set the course for what we as a people would become and what the United States of America would represent to the rest of the world: A nation of free and civilized people, a self-governed republic ruled by the “law of the land” as documented by the greatest constitution of government ever conceived under the guidance and inspiration of Almighty God working through a diverse body of men that were submitted and committed to the premise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Although the Founding Fathers and other patriots of the period were philosophically, if not ideologically committed to the New World concept of personal freedom for all men, many were not without their shortcomings and failings. Many early settlers and those to follow drove off Native Americans from their ancestral lands, or stole from or cheated them, or desecrated their villages. Both white and black slaves or indentured servants were held in bondage for a lifetime or for a period until they could earn their freedom. It would take almost another hundred years before the new nation would attempt to confront the issue of slavery head-on and another hundred years before the civil rights movement would address the legal issues of equality and freedom that our forefathers had envisioned for a land of truly freemen.