The father of my colleague Carla Davidson was a newspaperman back in the racy violence of the Front Page days; he was also an accomplished novelist and television writer and a historian of wide interests. But he never could bring himself to care much about what he called “short-pants history,” by which he meant that time in America before modern accessories like railroads had started to build the country we inhabit today. I know what David Davidson was talking about: the faintly claustrophobic world of wigs and quill pens and the grave men at the convention we see pictured on our money and trying to read a page where, as Thomas Pynchon put it, the S’s look like F’s.
That world lies, formal and quaint with its butter churns and shoe buckles, 50 years beyond the farthest reach of the camera lens, very distant from our world, and, of course, much calmer. There is an actual publishing subgenre devoted to all the ways that World War II could have turned out differently, but the American Revolution never generates anything like that pitch of speculation. We know it was a close-run thing, but that’s just part of the legend, of the inevitability that embalms it.
Even so desperate a venture as George Washington’s gamble at Trenton on Christmas Day of 1776 can appear to be an event immune to re-evaluation. Here’s what we know: In the summer of 1776 Washington with an army 20,000 strong is encamped in Brooklyn when a British armada arrives. The Americans are routed, the army escapes by the skin of its teeth, Washington retreats into Westchester, is beaten there, and flees with his fraying, dissolving force—now down to a few thousand—right through New Jersey and over the Delaware River into Pennsylvania. Then, on Christmas Day, he goes back across the Delaware and, after a brutal night march in a gale, leads a threadbare, hungry collection of farmers and grocers and schoolteachers into Trenton to capture a garrison full of the most professional soldiers on earth.
This victory, though minor in military terms, is an immense morale booster, one that keeps the guttering flame of the Continental cause alight through the winter.
This is a great story. But in his new book Washington’s Crossing, David Hackett Fischer makes it a greater one. As the portion of his book excerpted in this issue argues, the Trenton attack was far more than a symbolic coup; it was part of a devastatingly effective winter-long campaign that was nothing less than the first unloosing of the full strength of a new nation.
Many years and wars later Eric Larrabee, in his splendid book about Franklin Roosevelt and his high lieutenants, Commander in Chief, spoke of what he saw as an American way of war: “It is not simply a matter of mass, or of organization, or of industrial plenty, though these play a part. The American way was a war of voluntary combination… . Fletcher Pratt said that it constituted ‘this nation’s one outstanding contribution to the science of human relations, a contribution not even yet thoroughly understood.’ American combination is for certain purposes, while maintaining perfect freedom in all others, the individual in suspension within the group: the husking bee, the ridgepole raising, the wagon train westward, the jazz band, the street gang, the naval task force, the Army of the Potomac. From the many, one.
“Once the purpose is accomplished the combination disbands. Yet while in existence it is everything: infantry with tanks and artillery, then all three with air—and ultimately with allies… . It must be voluntary, willed by all, for no other way can the force of the combination be realized and the generous energies liberated.”
Larrabee was speaking of a powerful country that would have been utterly unimaginable to the men suffering through the 1776 campaign under the black, ice-glazed branches of a New Jersey winter. But as David Hackett Fischer tells us, they were the ones who first liberated those energies. Washington’s coup at Trenton, then, was not a desperate final cast against fortune, but rather the final test that, once passed, allowed all the thousand ways Massachusetts greens and Georgia market towns had nurtured a new people to coalesce and unleash a force whose full power we still today cannot calculate.