Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

16 January 2009


Everyone who fears hard times should read David McCullough’s 1776.

As the world’s predominant nation today, we like to think that our rise was inevitable. But it wasn’t. Our birth as an independent nation was as precarious as any event in human history.

We were up against the largest, best trained and best equipped military in the world: the British Empire’s. When the British took New York, they had over 400 ships in and around the harbor—the greatest armada ever assembled. One of their cannonades was so thunderous that some of our green troops fled at the mere sound of it.

In contrast, our navy was minuscule and our army inadequate. Throughout 1776, we had at most 9,000 troops at arms; the British and their mercenaries had about 30,000. Our industrial might was only a distant promise. We lacked powder, cannon, muskets, food, clothing, shoes, blankets and firewood. Many of our troops marched through the winter with tattered shoes or bloody rags on their feet. Some used pitchforks or makeshift spears as weapons.

Worse yet, our troops were untrained, unruly and undisciplined. They didn’t keep order in their camps. They didn’t keep themselves, their clothes, their food or their weapons clean. Many ran at their first taste of combat. They didn’t observe even the primitive rules of hygiene known at the time. As a result, dysentery and disease were rampant among our troops, far more than among the British regulars and Hessian mercenaries.

We didn’t even have a standing army. We had various state militias, and their enlistments were all short term, typically six months. In our darkest hour, in December 1776, thousands of troops left our ranks as their enlistment terms expired. George Washington had to promise each soldier a bonus of ten dollars (a significant sum in those days), to keep the army from dissolving before his eyes. He did so on his own initiative, without congressional authority. The Continental Congress later backed him up.

McCollough ends his fascinating book in January 1777, after our hit-and-run military victories at Trenton and Princeton. While enormously important for our morale and self-respect, those midwinter victories were militarily insignificant. Our War of Independence would run on for another six and a half long, wearying years.

Yet we all know who won. Why?

It wasn’t Washington’s brilliance as a strategist. In defending New York, he relied on officers unfamiliar with the terrain. He left a key but little used pass completely unguarded. As a result, his army was cut off, and we almost lost the war, as well as New York.

Washington made other equally disastrous mistakes. Often he was indecisive. Sometimes he was too cautious. Luckily, when he was too rash his command councils overruled him. The history of 1776 involved one strenuous retreat after another, as Washington sought to preserve his army and any chance of victory, no matter how small.

As you read McCollough’s history of trials and failures, two features of George Washington’s character become crystal clear. First, he was a realist. He always knew what he was up against.

More important, he understood. He saw how far his ragtag band of rebels had to go to become a real army. He knew his only chance for victory was to keep his forces together and as intact as possible, despite their inadequacies and hardship. His bouts of indecision were due more to lack of good intelligence than to vacillation on fundamental aims. He hazarded attacks on Trenton and Princeton (as morale boosters) only when he knew that the bulk of enemy forces had repaired to cities for the winter, as was customary at the time.

Even more important, Washington had perseverance. Bred to land and wealth, he might have been soft, pliable and weak. He was not. Like so many of his social class, he might have become a Tory loyalist and aided the enemy. Like many of his soldiers, he might have been overcome by hardship and given up. Instead, he soldiered on, often leading in the thick of the fighting. What he lacked in strategy and formal military training, he made up in ability to inspire and lead his men and his adamant will.

Washington led by keeping firmly in mind what he was fighting for. He constantly reminded his men and a distant Congress what was at stake. In the darkest hour, he never doubted the rightness and justice of the cause. He gave those closest to him unshakable faith in their mission. He inspired loyalty like no American since, but he never abused it to seek power for himself or to excuse his failings.

As we face trials far less serious than those the first Americans faced, we would do well to think about that kind of perseverance. For eight years we have seen its antithesis. We started a war in Afghanistan, seeking justice for the perpetrators of 9/11. Did we see it through? No sooner had we secured a transitory and precarious battlefield victory than we started a new war in Iraq and gave it higher priority.

As for finance and industry, for the last eight years “perseverance” has meant holding on long enough to cash in stock options and leave the sinking ship. Many doubt our ability the stay the course toward energy independence, believing that consumers will refill their gas guzzlers (and buy even more) now that gas sells for less than $ 2 a gallon again.

Yet there are signs that things are changing. Just yesterday Intel Corporation—one of our leading industrial giants—faced a grim reality: a 90% plunge in profits. While announcing layoffs, CEO Otellini refused to cut support for internal research and development. “We’ve always believed,” he said, “that the best way to successfully emerge from recessions is with tomorrow’s products, not by standing still with today’s.” That’s perseverance.

Any what of our new political field? The campaign stamina of Hillary Clinton, our new Secretary of State, is legendary. So is Barack Obama’s. Both persevered through the longest and toughest presidential campaign in history.

Is this a pleasant coincidence? I don’t think so. Part of what makes Secretary Clinton run is her own ambition. But part is her awareness that she carries the baton for millions of women who, after 89 years of suffrage, have yet to see political influence, let alone power, proportionate to their numbers.

As for our African-Americans, what can you say? Is there any group in this great land that has shown longer and more effective perseverance? Their ancestors came here in chains as slaves. They’ve been despised, beaten, lynched, oppressed, marginalized, disenfranchised, neglected, disrespected and spurned.

For the last four decades, Republicans have demagogued the “threat” of “black power.” But there never was any real threat. Some African-Americans scared the rest of us (Malcolm X and Huey Newton), yelled at some of us (Al Sharpton), goaded most of us (Jesse Jackson) and appealed to the better angels of our nature (Martin Luther King, Jr.). But none seriously considered large-scale violence, let alone the sort of guerilla war that regularly occurs in Latin America.

Like George Washington, African-American leaders always knew what they were struggling for. It wasn’t a replay of the French Revolution. Through most of four centuries, they never lost faith in the promise of an America that treated them so poorly. Instead, they struggled loyally within the system that they hoped one day would accept them. That’s perseverance!

Now “their” leaders are “our” leaders. They still know who they are—who we are—and what we all have been struggling for. Soon-to-be Attorney General Eric Holder knows. No doubt with his ancestors’ treatment in mind, he’s said that waterboarding is torture and won’t happen on his watch. He has promised to observe the letter and the spirit of our Constitution in all that he does.

Our American push for Reason and Justice has always been an improbable experiment. We have had to fight the phantoms of history, tradition, cynicism, selfishness, greed and stupidity every step of the way. Sometimes, as now and before the Great Depression, those lamentable qualities have been our own. Sometimes, as during our War of Independence and the last century, we’ve had to fight and beat the most fearsome military machines that mankind ever assembled. But we have always persevered.

Whether you fought for this day, stood on the sidelines, or even resisted, you will get the goods. As Barack Obama takes his oath as president, every one of us will reap the benefits of history’s most dogged, patient, and loyal pursuit of American values.

Having people with that legacy of perseverance steer our ship of state through these troubled waters is not just encouraging and inspiring. It is downright comforting.

P.S. My wife and I will be going to the Inauguration and will be out of touch for several days. We won’t be on the dais. We’ll be among the millions watching the proceedings on jumbotrons on the Mall. But we’ll be there to experience the immense power of popular faith in our continuing capacity for national renewal.

That’s the power that has made our Republic, still young and fragile, the last, best hope of mankind. We trust that it is still just that, and we’ll be there to feel the power of renewal in the flesh.


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