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From despair arose the greatest nation

The next time you're feeling down, remember this story. It's about how close the name George Washington came to being nothing but a bonus answer in a barroom trivia game.

On the same day that Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, 9,000 British soldiers landed in New York. Their numbers would grow to 32,000 by September, when they attacked. And defeated the blundering, outmatched General Washington in a series of clashes in Brooklyn, Manhattan and White Plains.

They chased Washington and his men across the Hudson, then across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania. By December Washington's army had dwindled from 20,000 to about 6,000, huddled on the west bank of the Delaware river, nervously awaiting the final British assault. Without supplies. Without new recruits. Without hope.

The British, sensing victory and eager to end the rebellion without a long guerrilla war, offered a generous amnesty to anyone who would pledge obedience to the King. Thousands poured into British camps and did, including two former members of Congress. Meanwhile, squadrons of British cavalry roamed the countryside, looking to mop up the remnants of Washington's army ... and Washington himself.

Within four months of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the cause of independence was effectively dead ...

... to just about everyone except George Washington, who refused to accept defeat.

The British, he learned, had left for their winter camp (as armies did in the 18th century), leaving behind a contingent of Hessian mercenaries at Trenton on the New Jersey side of the Delaware, to keep watch on the rebel army. They couldn't cross and attack Washington because he had ordered his men to steal every boat along a 25-mile stretch of the river, including several of those big shallow-draft boats used to haul ore which, Washington surely noticed, were great for hauling horses, artillery or entire platoons of men.

That formed the basis of a plan, which Washington presented to his officers on Christmas Eve: the following night they would board the boats at three points on the river, cross by midnight, and attack the Hessians from three directions before dawn.

Things didn't go so smoothly. The river was so icy and treacherous that two of the contingents didn't even make it across. And the other, fortunately the largest, didn't get across until 3 am, which meant they wouldn't be able to attack before dawn. But attack they did, at 8 am after a long night march in ugly weather. And luckily it was a complete surprise. In the 45-minute fight (bolstered by the heroics of a captain named Alexander Hamilton and a Virginia lieutenant named James Monroe) they killed 22 Hessians, wounded 90, captured 900 and, miraculously, lost only two of their own.

After the battle, Washington was quoted as saying: "This is a glorious day for our country." Indeed it was. News of the victory revived the revolutionary cause.

December 26, 1776 is the day we became a nation. Because that's the day we demonstrated that we could defend ourselves. A year later, after the Patriot victory at Saratoga, a defeated British officer sized up his ragged captors and later wrote that he was "looking at a new race of men". (Who, by the way, built the greatest nation on earth.)

Many so-called 'contemporary historians' attribute our prosperity to the fact that we settled a continent rich in natural resources.

Well, so did the Russians. How did that turn out?

What makes us different?

Shortly before the Trenton attack, one of the visitors to Washington's camp had commented about blood in the snow, which came from hundreds of men without proper shoes. In fact many were without clothes! They wrapped themselves in blankets tied with twine. Hundreds were ill. The two men lost at Trenton weren't killed in the fight; they froze to death during the night march.

Why did these men endure such hardships and face death? Particularly when all one had to do was proclaim loyalty to the King ... and go home!

The answer, trite as it may sound, is ...

... freedom.

Washington's soldiers, like most 18th-century men, lacked the world-awareness that we've developed since. Yet they understood a crucial concept our latter-day political leaders seem to have missed.

Freedom is the fuel that powers the engine that turns resources into wealth.

Freedom is why a man would hack out a homestead where there was nothing but deep woods and hostile Indians; because it's his home.

Freedom is why a woman would risk her savings to open a restaurant and employ others; because it's her money, her ambition and her passion.

Freedom is why we've succeeded and others have not.

And freedom, I'm sorry to say, is why we're losing jobs to India and China today. Talk to any employer and you'll hear that hiring someone is more like adopting a child. It's not about "low wages". There are so many costs beyond that person's wage that to stay competitive, businesses are willing to risk the things they value most -- product quality and customer relations -- just to escape the henpecking of the meddlesome nanny state.

In words attributed to Benjamin Franklin: "If we restrict liberty to attain security we will lose them both." We're seeing the signs of that today. We're so concerned about "fairness" in the workplace that suddenly too many people have no workplace.

It seems we've played fast and loose with the precious liberties secured by those men who endured so much.

Freedom is why the recovery lags. (Why invest your money when the free market is no longer free? In many industries the government picks the winners.)

Does this mean we should return to the days of sweatshops and no safety net? No. But it's high time to give the pendulum a serious push in the other direction ...

... by electing people with a sense of what made us so prosperous, and who demonstrate the courage to stand up to those who buy votes with your money by jealously distributing our collective wealth.

Time to elect leaders who follow the old fatherly advice: (I think it's from a Shania Twain song)

"Dance with the one who brought you".

Her name is Freedom.

Joe Curran's notes

Hessians -- About 25 percent of the British force were mercenaries from what is now Germany, the largest group of which were from the Hesse-Kassel region. We can't call them Germans because there wasn't a Germany until 1871.

A word about the American Indians -- When one recounts American expansion, the mistreatment of the native tribes comes up. Indeed there many broken treaties. But it's my view that, had the Indians been treated fairly, they certainly would have assimilated themselves into western culture. They were intelligent, accommodating and adaptable, and wouldn't have chosen to remain primitive. And, to set the record straight, their culture wasn't necessarily "ancient".  They inhabited the northern Plains because they were pushed from the northern woodlands by enemy tribes. They couldn't hunt buffalo without horses, which were acquired from the Spanish only two centuries before Custer.

"New race of man" -- One of my favorite quotes but I couldn't verify it until I remembered hearing it in a PBS documentary about the American Revolution. The source still is unclear but at least this shows we didn't make it up.

What makes me such a know-it-all -- The History Channel. And I read four wonderful books: 1776 and John Adams by David McCullough; His Excellency: George Washington by Robert J. Ellis; and George Washington's War: The Saga of the American Revolution by Robert Leckie. Never could have I appreciated any of these without first reading The Complete Idiot's Guide to the American Revolution by Alan Axelrod.