I've written a bit about American history and historiography in this series, mainly in number 18 about Bruce Catton's Civil War books, but to get to the root of things, to the first consciousness of Americanness, we have to go back to the War of Independence, to the year 1776 and two books published in 2004, David McCullough's 1776 and David Hackett Fisher's Washington's Crossing.
The action begins in March with the end of the siege of Boston when the British took to their ships and sailed away to Halifax, while Washington started his troops for Manhattan. Without a navy, without command of the waters around New York, defense of the island was really not feasible, but Washington determined to try, for reasons that are very interesting. Of course, there were the strictly military reasons: resisting the invader, refusing to abandon an important strategic location; but there were significant political reasons: the Continental Congress didn't want the city abandoned, and Washington felt that to surrender New York without a fight would strike a heavy blow against American morale. One of the difficulties American commanders had to cope with from the beginning was the interference of politicians in the details of military affairs. They withheld militias, wanting to keep them for home defense, and they wanted Washington to mount an all-round defense of everywhere, an impossible task. In the last week of December 1776 this problem would be tackled in a way that became characteristically American when the Congress passed a resolution giving Washington absolute command of military affairs for six months, but ultimately accountable to Congress, a solution that became the model for civil/military relations in America. An implicit corollary is that commanding generals, if they are to retain the confidence of their political masters, must be sensitive to the political context of the time. General George MacClellan ignored the pressures on President Lincoln, which is why, after 1862, he sat out the war in Trenton. And General George Patton was superseded in World War II by the second-rate Omar Bradley because he ignored public sensitivities.
Although Washington had some military experience in the French and Indian war, he was facing seasoned professionals in Generals Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis, and by comparison he came off very badly in the New York campaign, from late August to the end of November. His best move was the overnight withdrawal of his army, after the battle of Long Island, from Brooklyn across the East River to Manhattan, but wars are not won by retreats. After nearly having his army bottled up in Manhattan, he managed to escape Howe's clutches and cross to New Jersey, although he lost nearly 3,000 men as prisoners of war when Fort Washington was captured, another blunder. Washington was curiously indecisive at this time, letting General Nathanael Greene persuade him, against his qualms, to garrison the fort when it no longer served any purpose. Losing so many men was a terrible blow at a time when enlistments were expiring and his army was melting away. Another factor was the lack of military intelligence. The New York area was a loyalist stronghold, and the British were better informed about his movements than he was about theirs. But I think the root of his problem was his inexperience at maneuvering large bodies of troops (there were nearly 30,000 troops in the area during the summer), especially these troops. David Hackett Fisher, in Washington's Crossing, is very good on the difficulty Washington had in dealing with an army of free men who came from colonies where their conception of the Cause were so diverse -- and so different from his.
To a Virginia gentleman like Washington, liberty was a hierarchal concept: men of independent means had it, but smaller property owners had less and so on down the line to slaves, who had no liberty at all. Assuming command at Boston, he was disgusted by the "leveling spirit" he met in New Englanders, whose conception of liberty was free men in a community of equally free men. And it took him a while to accept the presence of free Negroes in the ranks of the Marblehead contingent. Fisher shows how Washington learned to accommodate these conflicting ideas and put together an effective army, but it took time and patience. When a court martial convicted some backwoods riflemen from Pennsylvania of mutiny, Washington did not have them shot (as would be done in the British army) -- Americans, especially these borderers whose idea of liberty was intensely individual, would not stand for that -- but instead fined them and appealed to their "honor, reason, pride, and conscience." They apologized and promised to reform.
Howe sent Cornwallis across New Jersey in pursuit of Washington, but he did not press too hard, and all the American troops collected on the west side of the Delaware by December 20. Taking most of his army back to New York, but leaving a handful of garrisons in place, Howe offered amnesty to those taking a loyalty oath, and many did. To New Jerseyans, the War of Independence brought civil war plus the uncertain brutalities of occupation, because the troops, despite strenuous efforts by commanders to prevent it, plundered and raped and murdered civilians, alienating supporters and outraging everyone else. Inevitably, bands of militia staged harassing attacks against the garrisons and their foraging parties, wearing down the troops, especially around Trenton. Washington was already thinking of an attack across the river when his adjutant, Joseph Reed, wrote to urge a bold stroke to revive American spirits and credit, suggesting Trenton as the target.
Washington immediately (December 22) called a council of war, and the rest is history: on the night of Christmas day, three columns of Americans tried to cross the river, but only one, led by Washington, was able to get through the ice, and the next morning, with 2,400 men, he routed 1,400 Hessians, capturing nearly one thousand. After escorting the prisoners across the river to Pennsylvania, he went back to reoccupy Trenton, where on January 2 he fought Cornwallis to a standstill at a fortified position, and then stole away at night to defeat a British force at Princeton, returning afterwards to safety in the mountains of the northwest. The crossing alone was an amazing feat.
To understand the great effect those eight days had on Americans, bear in mind the context: independence had been declared in July and within a few weeks Washington's army suffered one defeat after another, and was finally driven across New Jersey to Pennsylvania, when the Congress hurriedly decamped to Baltimore. The Declaration looked pretty hollow then. As if to herald the turn about to come, Thomas Paine published The American Crisis ("These are the times that try men's souls") on December 19 to instant, tonic effect. There followed the miraculous eight days of marching and fighting, and a tide of the whole year was turned. Whatever happened after that, America would be independent.
David McCullough is a skillful writer of popular books on discrete subjects -- the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, the Panama Canal, Teddy Roosevelt's early years. He tells the story accurately, honestly, and fluently, and he grasps the importance of that great year in our history, eloquently captured in this quotation from the English historian G. O. Trevelyan:
It may be doubted whether so small a number of men ever employed so short a space of time with greater and more lasting effects upon the history of the world.
To understand in depth what that year tells us about the complex nature of nascent Americanness, however, Fisher's book is the one to read. An historian with a wide breadth of visions, he probes deeply into the problems of the actors, elucidating their thoughts and feelings and motives. Like McCullough, he covers the year from the siege of Boston to the battle of Princeton, but he carries the story forward into the spring of 1777, describing the so-called Forage War, militia raids by New Jersey militia (aided by Washington) against enemy garrisons. The main emphasis, however, is on the battles of Trenton and Princeton, and the book opens with a description and analysis of the famous painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware. It is a brilliant beginning, and the text (well-illustrated) that follows fulfills its promise in depth and breadth.
The events of 1776 are not the beginning of American Exceptionalism, but its fruition. It began with the desire of the Pilgrims and Puritans to separate themselves from those they thought ungodly, and it was strengthened by the Mayflower compact, the agreement for self-governance signed before they landed. They did not know it, but they were already a people apart from the mother country, and subsequent colonial history drove them further and further apart. Great Britain's needs, expressed in orders from the king and his ministers, did not mesh with the needs of those living on the edge of wilderness, and it became harder and harder to bridge the gap, to reconcile opposing desires. Before 1776, very few of the colonists thought of themselves as Americans, but they had been in the process of becoming so for more than 150 years, and in 1776 they suddenly knew who they were, a new people, a new nation, and when they ratified the Constitution in 1787, establishing a radically new form of government, they set the seal on our unique identity.
In these days we need to fortify our sense of the specialness of our country, and these books will do it. *
"There is but one straight course, and that is to seek truth and pursue it steadily." --George Washington