For every historian, there’s an event that makes them feel good every time they read about it. We asked our contributors:
What event from the American Revolution and Founding Era (approximately 1765-1805) do you find most uplifting?
Adam E. Zielinski
General Washington’s speech to his troops on December 31, 1776. The army was about to dissolve and go home, even after the victory at Trenton, because their enlistments expired the following day. Washington needed to convince them to stay or the war was likely lost. As if a scene straight out of a movie, he sat atop his horse and tried to rally the men. His first speech was unsuccessful, and it was reported that after not a single soldier stepped forward, the American commander rode off in disgust. But Washington, ever rising to the occasion, halted, spun around, and came back to give a second speech that ultimately convinced the majority to step forward and commit for a few more weeks. A prime example of Washington’s indispensable leadership, it was a favorite story among grade school students because they always asked what happened next.
The adoption of the federal Constitution by the delegates to the 1787 convention is what makes me smile. That the United States, only four years after the Treaty of Paris, could identify its structural problems and create very reasonable ways to fix them continues to please me, as does the breadth and depth of the Constitution. As Benjamin Franklin said to the delegates, he did not approve of everything in it, which was to be expected from it having been made by many competing interests and containing compromises. “It therefore astonishes me to find this system approaching so near to perfection,” he said, and added, “the opinions I have of its errors . . . I sacrifice to the public good.” He asked the delegates to “doubt a little of their own infallibility,” pass it unanimously, and then to make sure the American public understood just how important and remarkable it was. It still is.
Mary V. Thompson
The founding era event that most speaks to my heart dates to the first term of George Washington’s presidency, when he often found himself calming fears on the issue of religion, which he saw as no concern of the government in regard to either belief or practice, as long as people were good citizens. In my favorite exchange, the Presbyterians in Massachusetts and New Hampshire wrote to say that they missed seeing an explicitly Christian statement in the Constitution. Washington explained that “the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction . . . To the guidance of the ministers of the gospel this important object is, perhaps, more properly committed—it will be your care to instruct the ignorant, and to reclaim the devious.” The Bill of Rights was ratified two years later, guaranteeing that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” How glorious!
One of the most uplifting moments for me of the period is the Battle of Cowpens. Not only was it a turning point but it is one of the best stories of the war. From the night before when Morgan walks the camp and tells each man what he expects, to John Eager Howard shouting, “Charge bayonets!” Even reading accounts sends chills up my spine. It’s one of my favorite stories to tell for sure.
The Second Battle of Saratoga the taught the British that Americans could effectively fight, got them on the run, and strategically prevented British attempts to split New England from the rest of the colonies. This victory uplifted the spirits of all American forces.
The Declaration of Independence, is obvious but frequently overlooked. Without it there would have been no Revolution, no universal principles of liberty, there would have been no Bill of Rights, no religious or political freedom, and most importantly of all there would be no United States of America.
The assault on Quebec City, December 31, 1775, is an inspiration. Benedict Arnold led men through the Maine wilderness, Richard Montgomery led men from Montreal, they met at the walls of a fortified city on a cliff, like some army from the Bible, and it was snowing, and they attacked anyway against impossible odds. That kind of reckless courage is awesome.
Katie Turner Getty
I take great delight in the triumph of Samuel Whittemore, the seventy-eight year old Massachusetts farmer who was shot in the face by British soldiers, bayoneted half-a-dozen times, bludgeoned with the butts of their muskets, and then left for dead during the British retreat through Menotomy on April 19, 1775. Of course, despite the best efforts of his enemies, Whittemore refused to die. In an epic demonstration of New England stubbornness, the flinty old farmer lived another eighteen years. Though a British musket ball had torn away part of his face, Whittemore’s indomitable spirit survived intact—he didn’t die until 1793 at age ninety-six. His uncommon longevity, the savagery of his injuries, and the triumph of his survival certainly make for an uplifting story.
When 250 Native Americans and a company of 40 British Rangers besieged Fort Henry on September 11, 1782, the fort’s supply of gunpowder was running low. There was a keg in Colonel Ebenezer Zane’s house, about sixty yards from the fort but none of the men wanted to risk their lives to go get it. Colonel Zane’s sixteen-year-old sister Elizabeth asked to be permitted to go get the powder so as not to risk the loss of another man to defend the fort. Despite efforts to prevent her from doing so, she was finally allowed to go. Several tribesmen, wandering around near the gate, saw Elizabeth leave the fort but paid no attention until she returned with the keg in her arms. (Some accounts say she carried the powder loose in her apron.) They then fired at her, but she entered the fort unharmed despite the musket balls flying all around her. The attackers withdrew from Fort Henry on Friday, the 13th.
“I give you joy” was a familiar eighteenth-century greeting. Two incidents, at polar extremes, give me, if not joy, a comforting sense of humanity, even in the most evil of days. The Widow Bishop, on her way to church near Spartanburg, South Carolina, grieving for the loss of her husband and three children, taken captive by the Indians, came upon the burial of a British soldier killed several days earlier as part of a rear-guard action, one covering a difficult creek crossing. The widow takes her Sunday apron, her most valuable article of clothing, something often passed on to a daughter, and covers the face of this unknown, forgotten soldier, far from his own home, mother and perhaps wife. About the same time, loyalist William Cunningham, pursued with a vengeance to the outskirts of British held Charleston for his brutal “bloody scout” that earned him the name “Bloody Bill” visits his horse Ringtail. “Bloody Bill” had been nursed back to life, but Ringtail is dying from exhaustion. “Bloody Bill” Cunningham, passing through history as a sadistic, heartless killer, wraps his arms about Ringtail and weeps.
When the Second Continental Congress voted on July 4, 1776 to sever colonial ties to England, it simply could have indicted George III to justify its actions. Instead, it included a preamble laying out a basic political philosophy that began with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, 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.” Neither those ideas or the concept of government that followed were entirely new, but by including them in the Declaration, the Revolutionary Generation founded a country wrapped around a universal idea, and not just a shared sense of place, culture, language, or grievance. The men who wrote the Declaration did not embrace those beliefs universally, but the logic of doing so was inescapable. It set a standard against which we can measure American successes, and failures, and a goal for which the country can still strive.
Two events in particular stand out for me: Washington’s farewell to the troops and also his Farewell Address. Here was a man at the pinnacle of power who held firmly to the ideals of the republic and graciously stepped aside to let democracy begin its ascent. In both instances, Washington could have found some reason to stay in command and seize control of a very volatile and fragile moment in American history. Rather, he set aside his own ego and ambition to let others take a hand in developing the future of this “grand experiment” – two times! In the noble gesture of public service, Washington understood that leaders in this new government must work for the better good of the country and not for the benefit of their own personal aspirations. Hear, hear!
Gregory J. W. Urwin
The delegates who signed the Declaration of Independence in July 1776 did not truly believe that “all men are created equal.” Theirs was a slaveholders’ revolt, and the property they cherished included human beings condemned to lifelong bondage. The Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War stipulated that British forces leave behind “any Negroes” who had sought freedom with the king’s troops. General George Washington, one of the South’s wealthiest slaveowners, had converted his Continentals into an army of slavecatchers after the British surrender at Yorktown, and he intended to repeat that mission once he reoccupied New York. General Sir Guy Carleton, the last British commander-in-chief in North America, refused to honor the treaty’s fugitive-slave provision. The “Book of Negroes,” which records the names of the African Americans Carleton evacuated to Nova Scotia, is the “Schindler’s List” of the American Revolution and should rank among our founding documents.
Patrick H. Hannum
The most uplifting comprehensive event during the period involved the creation and ratification of the United States Constitution. Wars are fought for political purposes and the Revolutionary War was part of a larger social and political movement that ultimately culminated in an attempt to create a more perfect form of government. The form of government we experience today is a direct result of these efforts.
The Continental Army’s victory at Trenton on Christmas ‘76. The army, a shell of what it had been at the start of ‘76 following the near annihilation at New York, was on the verge of disintegrating when most of the men’s enlistments ended at the end of the New Year. Washington, the spine of the American “Cause”, had to have victory, and threw every last card he had left into a midnight attack on the Hessian encampment at Trenton. His men—discouraged, underfed, under-clothed, under-equipped, and under-paid—kept their faith in him and “The Cause” and followed him to an improbable victory. The mission challenge and answer was “Victory, or Death,” and it couldn’t have been more appropriate. Washington and the Continental Army won—at Trenton and eventually the war—by refusing to give up and admit defeat.
James Kirby Martin
March 15, 1783, the New Building (sometimes called the Temple of Virtue), High Noon, New Windsor, New York, cantonment: George Washington appears at a very tense meeting of his angry officers, who justifiably were upset by the lack of civilian support they had endured over the years. Thoughts of open mutiny, or something worse, were in the air, perhaps even an attempted coup, possibly leading to a military takeover of the Continental Congress. Washington spoke with passion, but did not begin to get his hotheaded officers back under control until he finished his prepared text, then ad libbed these words: “Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” There it was. They had all sacrificed for a cause much greater than any one of them. As Thomas Jefferson later wrote about Washington’s actions in containing his mutinous officers, the American Revolution was “prevented . . . from being closed by the subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
Of all the Revolutionary War’s significant events, none were more critical than the Battles of Trenton and Princeton. The revolutionary zeal of 1775 and 1776 was in a death spiral as British forces drove General George Washington’s Continental Army out of New York, through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. Washington’s dwindling army suffered the loss of thousands killed, captured, or having had left the army; a growing number of Americans felt the war was lost; two of Washington’s top generals, Charles Lee and Horatio Gates, were in open rebellion; and several members of the Continental Congress were growing critical of his abilities. While there would be other times in which American victory seemed impossible, none came as close to making American defeat seem so probable. Washington’s bold and decisive victories reawakened the declining American Spirit of ‘76, brought in recruits, encouraged veterans to re-inlist, and helped silence Washington’s critics.
Richard J. Werther
For me, it is without a doubt the George Washington’s resignation of his military commission at the conclusion of the Revolution in late 1783. This surrender of power was pretty much unprecedented. Military leaders of a revolution became the leaders (often dictators) of the new government. Washington’s Cincinnatus-like act of laying down his sword and returning to his “vine and fig tree” encompassed the ideals of the Revolution. As King George III famously exclaimed when informed what Washington had in mind “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world”. He did, and he was. That he was coaxed back years later to lead the new government does not diminish his action a bit, especially since he walked away again in 1796.
Few Americans resisting the Crown also planned to end slavery. In fact, they complained loudly about any royal measure that encouraged enslaved people to seek freedom. But in 1777 the new state of Vermont outlawed keeping adults enslaved in its constitution. In 1780 Pennsylvania adopted a gradual emancipation law, and four years later Connecticut and Rhode Island did the same. In 1783 Massachusetts’s highest court ruled that the new state constitution made slavery unenforceable; New Hampshire followed suit. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 limited the spread of slavery west. In 1793 the legislature of Upper Canada (Ontario), pressed by lieutenant governor and war veteran John Graves Simcoe, restricted slave-owning. None of those limits was complete; every state’s early history still includes people kept in bondage. But those actions show that many in the Revolutionary generation were ready to practice the ideals they had used to justify their own independence.
My most uplifting Revolutionary Era event is George Washington surrendering his commander-in-chief commission to a poorly attended Congress after the last British soldier left New York City in December 1783. Although Washington had significant differences with many Congressional actions, he demonstrated the ultimate respect by bowing to a seated Congress and resigning his generalship. Further, he spoke about the need to make right on Congressional promises to fund the Continental Army soldiers’ back pay. His selfless act firmly established civilian control over the military, which is the bedrock of our democracy today.
Of course the Declaration of Independence is the most emotionally uplifting event of the time. But the election of 1800 was the culmination of the Revolution. It was a change of power between two political parties, the Federalists represented by John Adams and the (Democratic) Republicans under Thomas Jefferson. Despite predictions of violence by many, it was a relatively smooth transition from one political philosophy to another. Even the tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr brought on by the cumbersome electoral procedure was taken care of by due process.
John L. Smith Jr.
At the risk of sounding cliché, the daring do-or-die, roll-of-the-dice Christmas raid by the Continental Army on the Hessian forces in Trenton is the stuff of Hollywood films. Throughout that previous summer and autumn, Gen. George Washington had been chased through Long Island, Manhattan, Harlem Heights, White Plains and New Jersey by the seemingly infallible British and Hessian forces. Now with the coming of winter 1776, expiring enlistments at the end of the year looked like it was the end of the Cause. Washington wrote, “I think the game will be pretty well up.” With little else going for him, Washington adopted the password “Victory or death” and gambled it all on the pre-dawn victorious attack. He—and all of America—won on that snowy morning.
The attempt by Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and George Mason to revise all of Virginia’s laws between 1776 and 1779 to make the reality of the American Revolution match its rhetoric. In Jefferson’s words, the 126 separate bills was to have been “a foundation laid for government truly republican” by abolishing slavery, establishing comprehensive (and coeducational) public education, ensuring freedom of religion, and reform the penal code along more humane lines. All of the major proposals failed, except for the Statute of Religious Freedom, later reframed by James Madison. The debate over the project’s central elements illuminates the priorities—for better and worse—of many revolutionaries, and excites students to the possibilities of what might have been.
Nancy K. Loane
The thought of Joseph Addison’s Cato being performed at the Valley Forge encampment makes me smile—and that it was performed before a “very numerous & splendid audience” I find downright exciting. To many, Valley Forge is hungry soldiers huddled around camp fires, or, after Steuben arrived, a constant drill. Yet William Bradford, Jr. wrote his wife that Cato was performed on May 11, 1778, and that the production was “admirable” and the scenery “in taste.” General and Mrs. Washington attended the play (one of Washington’s favorites) on what must have been a rare night of frivolity, and so did Lord and Lady Stirling and their daughter; Bradford invited his wife to camp, too. Cato was not the only production slated to be performed at Valley Forge. Two more “theatrical amusements” would also be staged—but only if the British remained in Philadelphia.
Nancy Bradeen Spannaus
The most uplifting event I encountered in the American Revolutionary era was Alexander Hamilton’s submission of the Report on Manufactures to the Congress in 1791. Reading that document revolutionized my understanding of the American Revolution and its purposes. In it I saw a vision for the economic development of the United States that was worthy of the high ideals of the Declaration—a positive vision for the nation as a whole. I was, and am, especially taken with Hamilton’s argument that manufactures were important because of their ability to “cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise.”
Although British officers and Loyalist Americans had their own slaves, Generals Alexander Leslie and Guy Carlton kept their word to thousands of former slaves who escaped to freedom behind British lines: With the war lost, they were evacuated with white Loyalists because, in Leslie’s words, “Those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters.” Carlton agreed: “I had no right to deprive them of that liberty I found them possessed of.” The former slaves weren’t treated well, but they were free. Many became the ancestors of Canada’s Afro-Nova Scotian population, which, before immigration reforms in the 1960s, composed thirty-seven percent of all black Canadians.
Daniel J. Tortora
The inauguration of George Washington always strikes me as an uplifting moment. There was so much excitement that day, so much celebration and hope. The events of the inauguration make for a great story: Bells ringing. Washington, dressed in American-made clothing, being sworn in on the portico overlooking Wall and Broad Streets in New York City. The new president clearly nervous while delivering his speech. Fireworks that evening. Washington getting stuck in traffic at the end of the night, being forced to walk home. The inauguration of George Washington marked, in my view, the culmination of years of struggle, but also marked the hopeful beginning of a new chapter for a young nation that would have to continue to evolve and find its way.
So many from which to choose. But one of my enduring favorites is Washington’s denouncing of the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy, March 15, 1783. The circumstances are still debated, of course, but on that occasion he made clear to his officers that any use—even implied—of pressure from the army on Congress would not have his support. It’s not so much an instance of “great man” history as an illustration of the role of an intangible character in pivotal events. Washington would not be a Cromwell, and he would have no Cromwells before him. A different general, and the outcome could have been a tragic coda for the Revolution.