Time and again, America has demonstrated a resilience that is rooted in the remarkable diversity of her people
- By Geoffrey C. Ward
- Smithsonian magazine, November 2001, Subscribe
(Page 2 of 2)
by Geoffrey C. Ward
Nothing like what took place in New York and Washington on September 11 has ever happened here before. It was unprecedented both in the scale of human damage done and the difficulty of hunting down those who did it. The President has said that we are in for a long, shadowy struggle unlike any we have ever waged. The question is whether this generation of Americans—impatient, unfamiliar with sacrifice, ignorant of the distant world from which the danger comes—will be up to the task.
History can’t tell us. Each generation must define itself. But it may be helpful, both as a caution to our current adversaries and as some comfort to ourselves, to remember what earlier generations of Americans did when faced with challenges as great as this one.
Another devastating assault on New York City almost ended the American experiment in self-government before it could get started. In June of 1776, more than 100 British vessels filled with troops anchored off Staten Island—so many that it seemed to one American volunteer as if "all London was afloat." When actual fighting began soon thereafter, George Washington’s outnumbered, under-trained force was quickly driven out. Fires destroyed a third of the city, thousands of its terrified residents fled, and its economy collapsed. "I feel mad, vexed, sick and sorry," wrote Colonel Henry Knox. "This is a most terrible event: its consequences are justly to be dreaded." A British officer was delighted: "The fact is [the rebel] army is broken all to pieces, and the spirits of their leaders and their abettors is also broken....I think one may venture to pronounce that it is well nigh over with them."
It was not over, of course. Washington and his army went on to outlast, if not outfight, the mightiest military force on earth. John Adams was surely right when he called ours "this mighty Revolution." It was the first war ever fought in defense of the inalienable rights of all mankind, the first whose outcome could truly be said to matter to every man and woman on earth, the opening signal—distant now but still distinctly heard—for two centuries of revolutions, first in Europe, then in South America, Asia, Africa. It was also the first revolution to declare that legitimate government rests on the consent of the governed; the first to seek to establish a society based on classless equality (save for the tragic exception of black slavery); and the first to proclaim religious freedom.
Little wonder that every subsequent American generation has seen itself as wanting when compared with that of the Founders. Even the young Abraham Lincoln believed the Americans of his time would never be able to match the achievements of the "once hardy, brave and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of [our] ancestors." Yet when the time of testing came for him and his contemporaries, they did not flinch. It took four ghastly years and cost 620,000 lives, but when the Civil War was finally over, the sin of slavery had been expunged, the Union had been restored and democratic government—Lincoln’s "last best hope of earth"—had been preserved.
That American victory, like all our victories, was won by a remarkably diverse people. From the first, our adversaries have mistaken that central strength as weakness. "You can have no conception of what kind of men composed their officers," wrote a Briton of some prisoners he’d captured not long after New York’s fall. "[One] was a blacksmith, another a hatter ...there was a butcher . . . a tanner, a shoemaker . . . yet they all pretended to be gentlemen." Some in the Confederacy believed the Union cause was doomed because the Yankee Army included African-Americans and immigrants from everywhere. "[It] is filled up with the scum of creation," wrote one of Braxton Bragg’s privates, "and ours with the best blood of the grand old Southland." Adolf Hitler had his own version of that view: Americans would never be able to defeat the Thousand-Year Reich, he assured his aides, because they were a mongrel people.
We are a mongrel people, and at our best, we glory in it. We’ve often been at our best since the events of this September. Everywhere, there have been signs of the same kind of resilience that saw our ancestors through—in the search-and-rescue teams made up by Americans of every color and from all over the country, toiling day and night amid the twisted steel; federal officials urging tolerance toward fellow Americans; ordinary people returning to their lives, determined not to surrender to terror.
As we enter into this new and dangerous era, we might keep in mind that 218 years ago this month George Washington returned in triumph to the charred city he had been forced to abandon seven years earlier. The United States had won their independence. But a token British force remained in Manhattan to cover the evacuation of loyalists. November 25, 1783, was the appointed day for them to leave, and Washington and what remained of his weary army wanted to see them go. As the Americans marched slowly down Manhattan Island that morning, the scene was eerie, unsettling: block after block of burned-out buildings, one witness remembered, that "cast [their] grim shadows upon the pavement, imparting an unearthly aspect. . . ." But when the troops reached the Battery, as the redcoats and their sympathizers rowed out to the ships that were to take them away, an American sailor clambered up the flagpole atop Fort George, pulled down the royal ensign and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes. The wind caught it, and soldiers and New Yorkers alike cheered as the American flag flew once again from the tip of Manhattan, just a few blocks from where the twin towers of the World Trade Center would one day stand.
by Geoffrey C. Ward
Subscribe now for more of Smithsonian's coverage on history, science and nature.