Don Cunningham: The Revolutionary War’s Lessons for Today’s Republic

By Colin McEvoy on October 29, 2020

This column, written by LVEDC President & CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on October 28, 2020. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

I’ve long sought historic locations for walks, day trips or vacations.

There’s something powerful and connective about walking the same ground or being in the same building where people in another era, famous or not, did things, made decisions and lived lives that framed the course of ours, decades or centuries later.

A few weeks ago, I explored the Revolutionary War sites of December 1776 and January 1777 in Bucks County, Trenton and Princeton.

I prefer the sites of America’s founding conflict because more are unmarked and unremembered than those that are. When the Revolution ended, there was a country to build. There was little time for monuments. Today, except for the most famous locations, it takes research and exploration to find them.

The best-preserved location of my recent trip was where George Washington crossed the Delaware River from Bucks County to New Jersey on a frigid Christmas night in 1776. This river crossing — one of hundreds that took place during the war — became widely known because of German artist Emanuel Leutze’s captivating painting.

He painted it in Germany in 1851 using the Rhine as a model. No other image captured so well the spirit and suffering and difficulty of America’s founding. And, at that moment, its desperation.

The American cause for independence was just about lost.

Washington’s ragtag troops had spent a year losing battles to the British. They’d been routed out of New York, lost the forts of the lower Hudson River, and were chased across and out of New Jersey. Washington’s citizen-soldiers had been killed, captured, ravaged by disease and were leaving as their enlistments expired.

About 2,000 beleaguered troops remained, taking cover in Bucks County with the river as protection. Washington decided he needed a bold stroke to save the revolution. That Christmas night, his troops crossed the river in three places, marched to Trenton and attacked about 900 Hessian mercenaries at the front of the British Army.

Independence wouldn’t come for seven years, but the victories at Trenton, and a week later at Princeton, saved the continental army and the cause.

Today, the Delaware where Washington and his troops crossed doesn’t look as daunting as in Leutze’s famous image. But, standing on that same riverbank where the tattered shoes of rebels’ tread 244 years ago, I thought of that day’s similarity with America today.

Only this time, America is at war with itself.

When asked while he left the Constitutional Convention of 1787 what the framers had wrought, Benjamin Franklin purportedly said, “a republic, if you can keep it.”

The foremost obligation of citizenship in a democratic republic is to preserve and extend the institutions of self-government to the next generation. In my lifetime, I’ve never felt it so threatened. Truthfully, I never realized it could be.

As a student of history, I should have known. I’m sure the generations that lived through World War II and Nazi occupations understood it, as did those that lived through the Civil War, when the country split apart. Those who came in bondage and were enslaved, and their descendants, understood. They lived in an America where the notion of self-government didn’t apply to them.

Americans have placed the crosshairs of hate upon each other.

Neither conservatism nor liberalism holds the seeds of free government’s destruction, but hatred of fellow Americans does. The hyper-partisan environment of angry win-at-all-costs campaigns, tribalism and the demonization of those in the other party contains both that seed and the water to grow it.

The enemies of democracy and self-government are those who don’t believe in it — not those who embrace a different approach within it.

Is it that our system has delivered so much prosperity, security and creature comfort that we cannot tolerate compromise, the slightest discomfort or a differing point of view?

Americans will never be one homogenous people. We never were. In colonial times, the southern farmer of South Carolina had no more in common with the merchant of Massachusetts than a Kansas farmer does today with a tech worker in New York.

If the only goal was tribal, America could as easily be 50 city-states today as it once was 13 colonies or many large territories.

North America could look like Europe.

America’s true alignment, however, was the universal desire for liberty, a belief in self-government and the prospects of a large continent. For a republic to survive, regional differences and party losses need to be subjugated to the greater cause of democracy and free government.

That means accepting the results of elections.

George Washington not only led American troops to victory over the British, he established the American presidency not just by the words of the Constitution, but by his actions, his character and his belief in a free government. He left after two terms to establish a constitutional presidency based on the peaceful transition of power.

His successor, John Adams, left after one term, despite losing the closest and oddest election in U.S. history. With no clear winner in the Electoral College, the election was thrown to the U.S. House of Representatives, where the outgoing members of Congress selected Thomas Jefferson, Adams’ most bitter rival.

We all should tremble at the talk today of anything less.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, Americans should turn to the Founders and focus on preserving what they gave us, our common ideals and avoiding a 21st Century Fort Sumter.

On a far edge of the Princeton Battlefield, there’s a grave marker to unknown soldiers tucked against a tree line. It reads, simply, “Near here lie buried the American and British officers and soldiers who fell in the Battle of Princeton.”

It doesn’t mention if they were liberal or conservative or from where they came.

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