Paul Greenberg: Washington emerges: Across the river and into history

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: February 22, 2013

In the course of human events, one thing remains certain: We forget. Somewhere over murky time, Washington's Birthday faded away, and was absorbed into another three-day holiday with no distinguishing marks except maybe … Giant Sales! It is the American way. By celebrating all presidents equally on some made-up Presidents Day, we now celebrate none in particular. Definition is lost; a generalized fuzz takes the place of the history that made us. And we forget.

We forget what it was like the winter after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, and how all its brave words began to sound hollow as defeat followed defeat.

New York was lost. The mightiest empire in the world had taken the offensive, and the ragtag continentals were scattering before it. But then General Washington and his troops gave the American people a rousing Christmas present.

Crossing the Delaware, Washington's column emerged on the Jersey side, overrunning the enemy camp, taking hundreds of prisoners before crossing back into Pennsylvania with their prisoners and new caches of supplies. Then they crossed the river again to continue the fight. Sending in reinforcements, Lord Cornwallis must have been sure he had the old fox bagged. Instead, it was Washington who had him, defeating the British at Trenton and routing their rear guard at Princeton, too.

At the moment when the whole American experiment was in peril, Washington would defy not just the enemy but despair. Not just once but again and again, in war and peace and in between.

As the woefully weak government under the old Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to deal with one challenge after another, the no longer young general would watch with growing concern as the nascent Union foundered. The new government, largely paralyzed because it required the unanimous consent of all the states to act, was powerless to reverse the trend. Mobs marched and a rebellion flared in Massachusetts.

The leader who by now had surrendered the stage to others would not just sit back and look on as his country melted away. Once again he would change everything, and save his country. To form a new, more perfect Union, he convened an assemblage of the most sagacious statesmen of his generation. As he told the delegates at the outset of their deliberations at Philadelphia in the fateful summer of 1787: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.”