Except from Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer
~ The War and the American Revolution
We have a very difficult card to play. We often have to act by the moon or twilight and leave the World to judge it in the clear sunshine.
-General William Maxwell to
Adam Stephen, April 10, 17771
On New Year’s Day in 1777, Robert Morris sent George Washington a letter that rings strangely in 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, which was very far from our own. We celebrate 1776 as the most glorious year in American history. They remembered it as an agony, especially the
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This is a story of real choices that living people actually made. To study and event in these terms is to discover a dense web of contingency, in which many people made choices within a structure of relationships. Washington’s Crossing is a case in point. To summarize in terms of contingency, this story began with the meeting of three armies in America. Most men who served in them were volunteers who were there because they chose to be. Many of them, from generals to privates, made choices that had an impact on events. But what they chose differed very much from one army to another, and so also did their ways of choosing. The American army of 1776 came mostly from middling families who cherished the revolutionary principles of liberty and freedom but understood them in various ways: the collective rights of old New England, the reciprocal rights of Philadelphia Associators, the individual rights of backcountry riflemen, and the hegemonic rights of the Fairfax men. The acts and choices of these new were an expression of their beliefs. So also were their autonomous ways of choosing, which made General Washington’s job more interesting, to say the least. Other patters of choice appeared among the armies of British and German Regulars in 1776. These were long-serving volunteers, trained by modern methods to engage the will actively in the service of others. In ways that varied in detail from English to