“Now or Never Our Deliverance Must Come”: George Washington and the Power of Contingency

“Contingency” is a historical concept easy enough to understand but among the toughest to convey, whether to students in a classroom or guests at a historic site.  Essentially it means that things in the past did not have to turn out the way that they did.  Just one different choice could have set our entire historical experience in a different direction.  Put another way, as Stephen Jay Gould suggested in a related context, if we rewound the tape of history back to a certain point and pressed “play,” would events have turned out the same?

Exploring such counterfactuals can be enormously useful–and intellectually challenging–as an educational tool.  For example, what if we rewound our notional historical tape back to this date in 1781?  What would we find?  Were you in New York, at the New Windsor Cantonment (which you can visit today), you would have found a rather somber 49-year-old Virginian named George Washington.  The year had not been kind to his Continental Army, and the War for Independence was looking far from won.  In fact, precisely the opposite was the case.  The American economy had collapsed; the British government was restored in Georgia; and most of South Carolina, part of North Carolina, the Chesapeake Bay, and much of Virginia were already back under British authority (so confident of victory was Lord North’s ministry that Virginia’s former royal government, including Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, was ordered back to the Chesapeake to resume its responsibilities).

And things were far more bleak on Washington’s immediate front.  The French commander, the Comte de Rochambeau, held such disdain for Washington’s troops that he wanted to avoid fighting alongside them at almost any cost.  Overall French patience with the conduct of the war, especially after they failed to wrest the Caribbean islands from British control, was rapidly disappearing.  As for Washington’s army, one might not blame Rochambeau for such a bleak view.  The mutiny of the entire Pennsylvania line, then the New Jersey line (which ended with executions), and then the threatened mutiny of Massachusetts’ sergeants all brought Washington’s own confidence to perhaps its lowest ebb.  That’s why on this date in 1781, you would have found him at his writing desk at New Windsor, worrying about the future in a letter to John Laurens.  “We are at the end of our tether,” Washington lamented, “and that now or never our deliverance must come.”

He could not know that seven months later he would be back in Virginia, watching the surrender of the second-largest British army in the field in a defeat of such magnitude that it would bring down the British government, end the war, and formally usher the United States of America onto the world stage.  But it is critical for historians–especially public historians–to be able to grasp and then convey the importance of such moments to others as a potent reminder that nothing was or, like the current threatened closure of Sweet Briar College, is inevitable.  Historians should leave to authors such as Jane Austen the power to determine that things happened “exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so,” for in real life, then and now, what might later seem natural, at the time might appear quite extraordinary.  And those are powerful enough moments to dwell on.

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