The Spirit Of ’76

ON NEW YEAR’S DAY IN 1777 ROBERT MORRIS, THE FINANCIER of the American Revolution, sent George Washington a letter that rings strangely to a modern ear. “The year 1776 is over,” Morris wrote. “I am heartily glad of it and hope you nor America will ever be plagued with such another. ” Washington shared that feeling. We celebrate 1776 as the most glorious year in American history; they remembered it as an agony, especially the “dark days” of autumn.

Americans have known many dark days, from the starving winters in early settlements to the attack on the World Trade Center. They have been the testing times and pivotal moments of our history. It was that way in 1776, from the decision for independence to the military disasters that followed. In early December, British commanders believed they were very close to ending the rebellion, and American leaders feared that they might be right. Yet three months later the mood had changed on both sides. By the spring of 1777 many British officers had concluded that they could never win the war. At the same time, Americans had recovered from their despair and were confident that they would not be defeated.

The cause of that great transformation lay not in a single event, or even a chain of events, but in a great web of contingency, in the sense of people making choices and of their choices making a difference in the world. The story began with the meeting of three armies in America. The American army of 1776 came mostly from middling families who cherished the Revolutionary cause but understood it in various ways: the ordered freedom of old New England; the reciprocal freedom of the Philadelphia Associators, who were raised in the Quaker tradition of extending to others the rights they demanded for themselves; the hegemonic liberties of Virginians who thought of rights as an unequal system of social rank; the natural liberty of backcountry settlers who demanded the right to be left alone. The choices these men made were an expression of their beliefs; so too were their autonomous ways of choosing.

Different patterns appeared among armies of British regulars and the German troops that fought alongside them in 1776. These were long-serving volunteers, trained by modern methods. They shared values of hierarchy, order, discipline, honor, loyalty, duty, and service. They despised the American rebels and the Revolutionary cause. Their meeting with the Americans was more than a clash of weapons and tactics. It was a conflict of ideas and institutions.

AMERICAN generals have been expected to be bold, quick, and decisive. This attitude appeared during the War of Independence and has been amplified by a free press demanding swift, clear results that could be summarized in eighteenth-century broadsides and twentieth-century headlines.

In Britain the drivers of the American war were a small circle of ministers in London who meant to break the Revolution by brute force. But their military commanders were more sympathetic to the Americans. The brothers Adm. Richard Howe and Gen. William Howe hoped to “conciliate His Majesty’s rebellious subjects” by firmness and moderation. Their junior officers and men were often more hostile to the rebels and also more predatory toward the inhabitants of what they called “our colonies.” These choices did not sit well together. The American leaders also made different choices about the conduct of the war. In 1776 George Washington favored a “war of posts,” in which the enemy was invited to attack strong positions. Gen. Charles Lee wanted a defense by small attacks on British forces. Gen. Horatio Gates preferred a strategy of withdrawal to the Appalachians. Some New Englanders proposed to burn New York and scorch the American earth.

All these purposes collided in the struggle around New York. The Howe brothers were brilliant in that campaign: firmly in control, clear in their purposes, clever in their military operations, careful not to put things wrong, and highly successful in three months of fighting. The Americans were baffled, indecisive, disorganized, undisciplined, and soundly defeated. From the Battle of Long Island to the fall of New York, the conquest of New Jersey, and the seizure of Rhode Island, the campaign was a cataract of disaster for the American cause. George Washington was outgeneralled at every turn. In 12 weeks he lost 90 percent of the army under his command.

Many supporters of the Revolution gave way to panic and despair. In occupied New Jersey the Howes’ policy began to work as thousands of Americans returned to the Crown. But other Americans made different choices. In the depth of December, Congress organized the war effort in a new way, the states redoubled their efforts, many Americans rallied to a common cause, and Washington’s army began to grow again. In New Jersey, brutal acts by the occupying troops undercut the intentions of their commanders and provoked people to rise against their oppressors. Groups of Jerseymen spontaneously launched small attacks by land an,d water. They exhausted the Hessian garrison at Trenton, gained control of the countryside, and drew British and German troops out of their interlocking positions. This popular rising created an opportunity for George Washington. He made the most of it.