Individual Choices, Not Impersonal Forces, Determine History

I’m teaching my American Revolution course this semester. Every time I do, I’m impressed with how character shapes history. In this case, the character of George Washington comes to the forefront.

As 1776 drew to a close, it seemed more likely than not that the fledgling nation was in jeopardy and that the Declaration of Independence was destined to be a silly footnote in history, another testament to man’s folly.

Washington’s army, such as it was, composed primarily of untested militia with short-term enlistments, had miraculously escaped the British noose on Long Island in August. Many would comment on the remarkable feat of ferrying the army from that island over to New York City in the dark of night.

Many others would remark with wonder at the almost-supernatural fog that descended on Long Island that morning, thereby allowing the retreat to end successfully. Divine Providence, many would say.

Yet after that, one might wonder where Divine Providence had gone. The ragtag Americans were pushed back in battle after battle, eventually losing the entire island of Manhattan and licking their proverbial wounds for the winter on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware River.

Morale in the army and the new nation was at low ebb as Christmas approached. Would the army disintegrate completely? Was this experiment in independence over before it could even begin?

I’ve often taught that history does not revolve around impersonal forces (such as economics). Rather, it’s the individual choices we make that determine what happens next.

Washington took a risk. He knew the mercenary Hessian troops just across the river in Trenton, New Jersey, would be “celebrating” Christmas in their traditional manner—getting stone-cold drunk.

That’s when he made the decision—called rash by some in his ranks—to cross the river in the dead of night and march straight into the Hessian encampment, taking them by surprise.

Who hasn’t seen this famous painting? Leaving aside for the moment whether Washington actually stood up in the boat in this heroic pose, he nevertheless was embarking on a desperate and heroic endeavor.

It worked. The surprise was complete. The Hessians surrendered quickly.

British general William Howe was in the area and vowed vengeance for this brazen act. He attempted to surround Washington’s army, but Washington fooled him, again moving his forces during the night while keeping enough camp fires burning to make Howe believe the army was still there.

In the morning, Washington’s troops ran into a contingent of British near Princeton. At first, the troops were timid and started a retreat. Washington himself then rode to the front and rallied them. The result: another stunning victory.

When news of these back-to-back military successes found its way into the newspapers, the reeling nation’s morale rose immediately. Washington, by his personal courage and determination, had single-handedly revived their hopes.

Historians, of course, note that this was hardly the end of the trials and that morale would rise and fall throughout the next few years, depending on the circumstances. Washington would face more hard times, even to the point where some in Congress sought to remove him as commander of the army.

Yet this winter of 1776-1777 was crucial to the continuing struggle, a struggle that eventually saw the establishment of America’s independence.

I often call George Washington the indispensable man of this era. This is just one example of why that is true. And I repeat: individual choices, not impersonal forces, are the determiners for how history unfolds.

The New University Culture

I have taught at Christian colleges and universities for 27 years. I’ve noted in past blogs that there have been bumps along the way and that none of those higher education institutions have been perfect. But I still believe in Christian higher education and am grateful that I’m not subjected to most of the insanity that is in the ascendance on many of our secular campuses.

One of the areas of study that is under attack the most is American history, which is what I happen to teach. I have the liberty to teach that history from a Christian perspective, discerning what was in accordance with Biblical principles and what was not. I have never, at my current institution, been told what to teach or threatened because of the content of my courses.

I shudder to think what might happen to me if I attempted to teach at a state university somewhere:

Welcome to College

I’m afraid I would have to undergo “sensitivity” training. My approach to my courses just wouldn’t fit the new, enlightened perspective:

Can't Take

Some organizations are trying to correct the imbalance by bringing in more conservative speakers to these campuses. All too often, those speakers are now being banned from the campuses. You see, they’re too controversial and might damage the self-esteem of those snowflakes who are huddled in their comfy ideological corner:

Banning the Speakers

And it’s becoming increasingly difficult for students to stay in line with the “correct” ideology because it keeps changing so rapidly. Princeton now wants all faculty, staff, and students to stop using such terrible words as “man.” That’s much too patriarchal for our tastes now.

Gender-Neutral Human

So where are we culturally?

Rhetorical Question

Classes for me don’t begin this year until after Labor Day, so I have a little more time to prepare. The nice thing is that I don’t have to dread my time in the classroom, never knowing when I will be called out for being too male, too white, too heterosexual, and too Christian.

I feel for my colleagues who are attempting to bring truth to students in a different environment. May they stay true to their calling and may God protect them.