Christmas dinner 1777 was a horrible affair for one of our countries greatest patriots. Not because the fare for himself and his military family consisted of a frugal collation of mutton, potatoes, cabbage and crusts of bread accompanied by poor water. Nor was it simply the incessant grumbling of the officers due to the shortage of any liquor. Washington’s horror was due to desperate and hideous state of his men.
His Continental army was quite truly shattering from the cold and lack of provisions. Remarking that its soldiers more properly resembled a hoard of unkempt beggars, Dr. Albigence Waldo of Connecticut wrote,
Dec. 14th ., Prisoners & Deserters are continually coming in. The Army who have been surprisingly healthy hitherto, now begin to grow sickly from the continued fatigues they have suffered this Campaign. Yet they still show spirit of Alacrity & Contentment not to be expected frown so young Troops. I am Sick, discontented, and out of humour. Poor food, hard lodging, Cold Weather, fatigue, Nasty Cloaths, nasty Cookery, Vomit half my time, smoak’d out of my senses, the Devil’s in’t, I can’t Endure it, Why are we sent here to starve and freeze, What sweet Felicities have I left at home;, A charming Wife , pretty Children, Good Beds, good food, good Cookery, all agreeable, all harmonious. Here, all Confusion, smoke Cold, hunger & filthyness, A pox on my bad luck. Here comes a bowl of beef soup, full of burnt leaves and dirt, sickish enough to make a hector spue,, away with it Boys, I’ll live like the Chameleon upon Air. Poh ! Poh ! crys Patience within me, you talk like a fool. Your being sick Covers your mind with a Melanchollic Gloom, which makes every thing about you appear gloomy. See the poor Soldier, when in health , with what chearfullness he meets his foes and encounters every hardship, if barefoot, he labours thro’ the Mud & Cold with a Song in his mouth extolling War & Washington, if his food be bad, he eats it notwithstanding with seeming content, blesses God for a good Stomach , and Whis[t]les it into digestion. But harkee Patience, a moment, There comes a Soldier His bare feet are seen thro’ his worn out Shoes , his legs nearly naked from the tatter’d remains of an only pair of stockings, his Breeches not sufficient to cover his Nakedness, his Shirt hanging in Strings, his hair disheveled, his face meagre, his whole appearance pictures a person forsaken & discouraged. He comes, and crys with an air of wretchedness & dispair — I am Sick, my feet lame , my legs are sore, my body cover’d with this tormenting Itch, my Cloaths are worn out, my Constitution is broken, my former Activity is exhausted by fatigue, hunger & Cold, I fail fast I shall soon be no more ! and all the reward I shall get will be, ” Poor Will is dead.” .
But it was not just the misery of his soldiers and their lack of provisions. Washington was abhorrent of the lack of dignity provided for his men. Many were almost completely naked and some were often simply without any clothes at all resorting to straw and blankets for whatever cover they had. What made this abuse more blisteringly intolerable was the selfishness of the citizenry. Many seemed to value their purse much higher than freedom or patriotic commitment. When he established his winter fort at Valley Forge he had correctly understood that the surrounding countryside was rich with provisions. What he had not counted on was that the local farmers would hide their crops and animals and also sell them for cash to the British encamped in Philadelphia.
Sitting in this sorry state, surrounded by the complicity of man, General Washington, our rising revolutionary leader, found in his patriotic heart the ability to write the following…
“We must take the passions of men as nature has given them… I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting war can never be supported on this principle alone. It must be aided by a prospect of interest, or some reward.”
So as we prepare for our own Christmas of 2011, should we not cast our eyes back at the time of the founding of out country. and seek the character of a man who rose with his peers to reject the injustices done to them by the organized government of the few professional politicians. Those on that far island, who in attempting to rule a nation found that a rag tag, under-provisioned, unprofessional gaggle or patriots could overthrow their invincible might and jettison the shackles of subjugation for the lofty air of freedom!
While it may seem recently we have been robbed of our glorious history, it is still there for all of us to see if we choose to look. We may try to hide these feats in fancy rhetoric, and partisan diatribe but in the end we will once again unite in a desperate cause to rise above the crush of abstract ideals for a pragmatic recognition that our reality and existence is rooted in tolerance and personal responsibility. That their are times when it is not the loudest cacophony that must be heard by our leaders but the providential voice of what is right and just must rise to the decision. That all of our power comes from a united people. And in every clash through history we have found a leader who can deny self interest in favor of self sacrifice–a leader who knows that the right decision may not be the most popular one, or the most convenient. We have always found leaders that have accepted the burden of the citizen politician–who have led–not prospered–and in the end it is they who have helped us create something great. This was because, in the end the power did not flow from them–but through them and they recognized that it was the power of the people and divine providence that gave them the wisdom to both yield it and then give it up when it was time to do so.
So let us all look back at the Christmas in Valley Forge in 1777 and remember that it was not one man, but one idea that united us in this endeavor, and that patriots are never born of convenience!