“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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“Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals”?: Abigail Adams Takes Stock of the Virginians (1776)

In the year of American independence, as representatives of the colonies in Philadelphia were still considering whether they could–or even should–become united, people elsewhere were wondering the same thing.  One thing we tend to forget these days is just how different and disconnected each American colony had been from each other from the very beginning.  They were separated by religion, ethnicity, political history, and, it should not be gainsaid, political economics.  In March 1776, the venerable Abigail Adams wondered:

What sort of Defence Virginia can make against our common Enemy? Whether it is so situated as to make an able Defence? Are not the Gentery Lords and the common people vassals, are they not like the uncivilized Natives Brittain represents us to be? I hope their Riffel Men who have shewen themselves very savage and even Blood thirsty; are not a specimen of the Generality of the people.

She was happy to give them credit for producing someone such as George Washington, already an icon of patriotic virtue (and Abigail had not yet met him), but something about the Virginians troubled her more: their commitment to freedom.

I have sometimes been ready to think that the passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs. Of this I am certain that it is not founded upon that generous and christian principal of doing to others as we would that others should do unto us.

The representatives in Congress were able to set aside their qualms, even if the presence of slavery in Virginia engendered regional distrust for decades to come–and charges of hypocrisy to this day.

 

“Who does his King but once deny, With him I live, with him, I die.” (July 2, 1776)

One day, when I was burrowing through the Brock Collection at the Huntington Library (and not getting ready to go surfing, I swear), I found this poem.  It was scribbled on the obverse of a letter written on this date, 2 July, in 1776, from Charles Hansford at the Halfway House, a tavern at the midpoint between Williamsburg and Yorktown, Virginia, to the Rev. Mr. Samuel Shield in Caroline County.  Clearly, it was hastily composed and might well be a copy of a more well known piece that I have yet to find.  It struck me for several reasons, not least with its relatively early lionization of Congress, Washington, and the local committees, and its simple definition of what it takes to be a patriot: Deny the King.

“I love & ever will obey

What Congress either does or say

Where George the 3d his sway maintains

There’s nothing but Tyranny & Chains

If yonder Washington commands

May he be crushed with endless woe

Who to the Congress is a Foe

What George the 3d by Law commands

To Ruin upon once happy Lands

Fair Freedom sits & waites around

Where active Committees abound

A band of motley Paltroons waits

Who does his King but once deny

With him I live, with him, I die.”

 

SOURCE: Huntington Library mss, BR Box 258 (29).