A “false and malicious report” appeared in the news one day, “spread by the enemies of America, that the Congress was about to disperse.” The day was December 11, 1776, and the British Army, victor of several battles, was marching across New Jersey toward Philadelphia. Concerned for what the spectacle of a government under siege would do to the morale of an American people then enduring “the times that try men’s souls,” the delegates begged General George Washington to declare the rumor false. But he couldn’t, for it was all too true. As the British drew closer, America’s elected representatives had no choice, but to flee Philadelphia for safety. The shame was hard to bear.
Redemption, though, was just around the corner. Washington, granted special powers by the departing Congress that some feared gave him the authority of a military dictator, proved his absolute devotion to the nation’s civil authority, and to the cause of freedom. Gathering together his few thousand freezing, battered and barefoot soldiers along the Delaware River’s snowy banks, he led them across ice-choked waters on Christmas Night and to victory at Trenton. The soldiers’ bloody footprints in the snow bore testament to the depth of their commitment, and the extent of their sacrifice.
Just over six years later, many of the same soldiers wondered if they had done the right thing. Camped at Newburgh, New York, in March 1783, they considered the words of a newly emerged group of rebels—men who told them that the same Congress they had saved in 1776 had betrayed them, and the American people. Rather than respect the slow and often disappointing ways of democracy, the rebels urged, the soldiers should turn their backs on the country’s external enemies, march on Congress then reassembled in Independence Hall, and occupy it at the point of the bayonet. Frustrated by a plunging economy, and worried about what the years ahead held for their families, the soldiers listened as the rebels, who called themselves friends of the nation, whispered in their ears. Shadowy enemies in high places had stolen the country, the rebels said. It was up to the people to take it back.
At this moment, all eyes turned toward George Washington, and the example he would set. Would he lead the soldiers in usurping Congress’s fragile authority, and ride a tide of outrage to install himself as leader? At noon on March 15, 1783, Washington appeared in front of a tumultuous assembly of general officers who were strongly inclined to shut down the government. “Visibly agitated,” and with a pair of spectacles in his waistcoat pocket that he had never worn in public before, the commander in chief strode to the lectern and, after a pause, began to read.
Some foe, he told the assembled officers, had been working upon their minds, “with an idea of premeditated injustice in the Sovereign power of the United States,” to “rouse all those resentments which must unavoidably flow from such a belief.” This enemy sought to “take advantage of the passions, while they were warmed by the recollection of past distresses, without giving time for cool, deliberative thinking, and that composure of Mind which is so necessary to give dignity and stability”—in other words, to stoke their rage into some irrational act by which the would destroy that for which they had already sacrificed so much.
Washington concluded with some of the most heartfelt words he was ever to utter to his countrymen. “Let me conjure you,” he implored, “in the name of our common Country, as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and national character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”
In standing firm, he promised them, “You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for Posterity to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to mankind, ‘had this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which human nature is capable of attaining.’”
Moments later, America’s Founding Father donned his spectacles, peered at the assembly and said quietly, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” As Washington left, with hardly a dry eye in the building, the officers voted unanimously to put their hopes, and those of their children and generations to come, in the hands of the man who told them to defer to the Congress, for whose right to govern the United States they had fought and bled. Nine months later, with trembling hands, Washington returned to Congress the commission and powers with which the delegates had entrusted him, and returned peacefully to his home by the Potomac.
In these new times of trouble, when the United States stands beset by a fresh generation of enemies, and American citizens endure hardships unprecedented in their nature if not in their intensity, let us consider whether the deeds of January 6, 2021 stand worthy before the “glorious example” of those who fought for the freedoms we still enjoy. Did we follow in the path of those bloody footprints in the snow? Or did we, falling victim to the guiles of what our Founder called an “insidious foe, sowing the seeds of discord,” bring shame upon the United States and give succor to those who would love nothing better than to see it—and the cause of freedom—fall into ruin? George Washington, I am certain, would not have entertained a moment’s doubt about whether those who usurped the civil authority that the Founders established had aided the country or betrayed it. During moments of tragedy in Washington’s own lifetime, the United States government used to declare days of “fasting and humiliation” to expiate moments of shame and defeat. Perhaps it is time to renew the tradition.
Ed Lengel is the Chief Historian at the National Medal of Honor Museum; Arlington, Texas