Washington’s crossing

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(HOST) Today is Washington’s birthday, and commentator Peter Gilbert has been reading a fascinating book about General Washington’s role in the American Revolution, and its potential to inspire us today.

(GILBERT) Historians inevitably look at the past from the perspective of their own time. Sometimes the expression of a modern perspective is intentional. And from a reader’s point of view, it’s in some ways desirable: after all, why would one want to read about a time or circumstance that bears no relevance whatsoever to the present? When that happens, one asks, “Who cares? So what?”

I’ve been thinking of these things having recently finished Washington’s Crossing, a fascinating book about the battles of the American Revolution in the winter of 1776-77. It’s by the distinguished historian David Hackett Fisher, author of Paul Revere’s Ride, and other award-winning books.

The book was published recently – in 2004. What it says and the way it’s written seems, at least, intended to speak not just of the past, but also to the circumstances of the present. The very last section of the concluding chapter is entitled “The Policy of Humanity.” It begins, “In 1776, American leaders believed that it was not enough to win the war. They also had to win in a way that was consistent with the values of their society and the principles of their cause.” Fisher then describes how the war was prosecuted in a manner consistent with what he calls “the expanding humanitarian ideals of the American Revolution,” including “a respect for human rights, even of the enemy. This idea,” he writes, “grew stronger during the campaign of 1776-77, not weaker as is commonly the case in war.” The idea can be seen in the way American troops gave quarter to captured enemy and did not summarily execute them, as British and Hessians frequently did. And it can be seen in the good treatment that prisoners of war received at Americans’ hands.

The last paragraph of the book is startling in that it seems to condemn equally both recent liberal historians who find no virtue – nothing praiseworthy – in America’s past and, on the other hand, those people who find no room for improvement in America’s present. Fisher concludes with these words:

[The American soldiers and civilians in those early battles] set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. Much recent historical writing has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. That isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting on a higher spirit – and so are we.”

This is Peter Gilbert in Montpelier.

Peter Gilbert is the executive director of the Vermont Humanities Council. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier,

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