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The man who could have been king: A salute to General Washington

By George F. Smith
web posted February 25, 2002

In lamenting the imperfections of early America, liberals overlook the enormous toll our founders paid for our independence. In listening to liberals, one might guess freedom popped up like toast one blissful morning while colonists were reading their New York Times, rather than torn from the hold of the most powerful country on earth.

When the British marched on Lexington in April of 1775, there had been much talk about man's rights and the King's oppressions, and it rallied a dispirited country to the cause of freedom. But with the British determined to crush the rebellion, our inalienable rights needed someone willing to fight for them on the battlefield.

Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (1796). Click on picture for larger version (132K)
Gilbert Stuart's George Washington (1796). Click on picture for larger version (132K)

Fortunately for all of us, we had such a man in George Washington. A month after Lexington, colonial leaders met in Philadelphia and unanimously picked Washington, then 43, to lead a collection of zealous farmers against the invincible British. If "opportunity" is a polite word for a dirty job, how many of us would relish Washington's opportunity?

But he accepted his commission graciously, refusing any pay except expenses, and vowed to "exert every power" he possessed in the service of Congress "and for support of the glorious cause" of freedom. [1]

Still, colonial leaders seemed more fearful of Washington's success than his almost certain defeat. If he beat the British, what would stop him from taking over the government and establishing an American monarchy?

"[W]hen we assumed the soldier we did not lay aside the citizen," he told a delegation in New York while en route to Boston, trying to soothe their apprehensions. The army, he said, would return to their private lives when the war was over. [2] At Cambridge he repeated his theme of citizen soldiers when he told the troops they were defending freedom "against violence actually offered," and they would lay down their arms when the threat of aggression was removed, "but not before." [3]

In summer of 1776 the British decided to evacuate Boston and set up operations in New York City, from which they could strategically snuff the uprising. While the British waited for reinforcements, Washington brought his main army to New York City to defend it.

Before hostilities broke out, the British made a mock gesture at peace. They sent a letter to Washington addressed to "George Washington, Esq." Washington refused to receive it, because of the publicly degrading manner in which it was addressed.

So the British tried again, this time with a letter carried by Adjutant General Patterson and addressed to "George Washington, &c.,&c., &c." Patterson said he hoped the et ceteras would remove any obstacles to communications. Washington said they didn't, not remotely, whereupon Patterson said the British were willing to offer pardons. "For what?" Washington demanded, saying they had committed no faults and needed no pardons. [4]

The British put aside their insolence and attacked the Americans in August of 1776, easily outclassing them. American casualties were heavy, confusion was rampant, and militia especially were abandoning the ranks in large numbers. Finding it more prudent to fight another day, Washington removed his troops from New York and retreated through New Jersey, with the British giving chase and some of his countrymen hurling ridicule.

By early December the American forces had fled to the Delaware River, crossing into Pennsylvania near Newtown. With winter setting in, the British decided to quarter in various towns and outposts on the Jersey side of the Delaware.

To British leaders like Sir William Howe and Lord Cornwallis, the conflict had been more of a hunt than a war. They would soon bag their quarry, but they were in no hurry. Howe decided to return to New York for an affair with the wife of his commissary of prisoners, Joshua Loring. [5] In his absence, Howe's troops, acting against his stated orders, embarked on a terror campaign against New Jersey residents.

The situation was grim for the American cause. Washington's army had been driven ignominiously from New York, and great numbers of Americans were accepting Howe's offer of a pardon. His troops were decimated by disease and desertion. The ones remaining were tattered and poorly fed. He pleaded to Congress for clothing, saying that some were "entirely naked and most so thinly clad as to be unfit for service." [6] Other than some militia from Philadelphia, his appeals for troops from Jersey and Pennsylvania yielded nothing.

By December 20th, Washington estimated his force at 7,600, about half that of the British. But enlistments would end on December 31 for most of his men, leaving him with no more than 1,400 troops. The British knew about the expirations and had little doubt the American well would shortly run dry.

Realizing the stakes, the man liberals today no longer honor decided on a bold move. He devised a plan to surprise the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton on the morning after Christmas, hoping to catch them sleeping from the previous night's revelry. A victory would recharge the troops and the American people, and would help him raise the army he needed.

Around 6:00 p.m. on Christmas Day, a force of 2,400 men began crossing the Delaware at McKonkey's Ferry, north of Trenton. One of Washington's aides recorded in his journal: "It is fearfully cold and raw and a snowstorm is setting in. The wind is northeast and beats in the faces of the men. It will be a terrible night for the soldiers who have no shoes. Some of them have tied old rags around their feet; others are barefoot, but I have not heard a man complain." [7]

By 3:00 a.m. the troops were on the Jersey side and the artillery was now on its way over. Washington stood on the bank, wrapped in a cloak, superintending the landings. An hour later they began their eight-mile hike to Trenton in two columns by different routes, while sleet pelted them.

Washington "pounced upon the Hessians like an eagle upon a hen," and the enemy surrendered after a short fight. [8] He took his troops back to Pennsylvania, let them recover, then crossed over to Trenton again on the night of December 30th, with plans to attack the British at Princeton. The following day, when enlistments were up, he rode before his troops on horseback and pleaded with them to stay a month longer. He commended their bravery and told them "the present is emphatically the crisis which is to decide our destiny." [9]

He managed to persuade some of his troops to stay for another six weeks, and with the financial aid of Robert Morris, promised them a bonus of $10 in gold coin for volunteering.

Meanwhile, the rebel victory had panicked the British. Cornwallis hastily gathered his men from across New Jersey and brought them to Trenton to confront Washington on January 2, 1777. Believing he had the Americans trapped, Cornwallis held off attacking while his exhausted troops recovered. As night fell, the two armies faced each other, separated only by a small creek.

Washington had no desire to challenge Cornwallis's superior numbers. Leaving campfires burning to deceive the British, Washington slipped away and headed to Princeton. At daybreak, as he reached the outskirts of Princeton, he engaged British troops that were leaving to assist at Trenton. The Americans fought well at first, but began to scatter when more redcoats arrived.

Washington then rode into the middle of the fray, between the advancing enemy and his retreating troops, hollering at his men to come back. Moved by his bravery, they returned and drove the British back into town, where for the next hour some of the most savage fighting in the war took place, with Washington right in the thick of it. It ended in a rout for the Americans.

A young American officer wrote to his wife: "I shall never forget what I felt in Princeton on [Washington's] account, when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging as it were by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself." [10]

So brilliant was Washington's maneuver at Trenton that when the British heard the reports of artillery from Princeton, they believed it to be thunder, even though it was the dead of winter. The quarry the British had relished hunting had proved to be a fox.

The victories in New Jersey kept the struggle going and helped Washington get some of the support he needed. Still ahead of him was Valley Forge, Benedict Arnold, and the long march to Yorktown.

When victory was finally secured, Americans everywhere exulted him and many thought he should be king. But he kept his promise and retired his commission, saying "I didn't fight George III to become George I." [11]

Apparently, Washington wasn't sophisticated enough to parse his original promise into a new meaning, by pontificating on what the meaning of "is" is. He simply believed in freedom, risked his life for it, and won, making liberty as a birthright a reality. While he didn't secure freedom for all men, he secured the foundations of a system in which all men could be free.

The calendar hanging over my desk notes Lincoln's birthday, Ash Wednesday, and Valentine's Day -- along with the federally-invented President's Day -- as significant dates for February. The importance of February 22 is nowhere mentioned, and that's a disgrace.


1. http://earlyamerica.com/lives/gwlife/index.html -- Life of George Washington by David Ramsay
2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Scheer, George F. and Rankin, Hugh F., Rebels & Redcoats: The American Revolution Through the Eyes of Those Who Fought and Lived It, Da Capo Press, 1957, p. 208
6. Ibid, p. 209
7. Ibid., p. 212
8. Ibid., p. 212
9. Ibid., p. 216
10. Ibid., p. 219
11. Source unknown

George Smith is full-time freelance writer with a special interest in liberty issues and screenwriting. His articles have appeared on Ether Zone, and in the Gwinnett Daily Post, Writer's Yearbook, Creative Loafing, and Goal Magazine. He has a web site for screenwriters and other writers at http://personal.atl.bellsouth.net/atl/g/f/gfs543/

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