“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”Declaration of Independence
These are towering majestic words. If you want proof of the divine, of the ability of God to speak directly into the ear of man you need look no further. The Declaration of Independence is one of the world’s great documents, and it changed human history.
But if you want to understand the real meaning of the Declaration and its significance for us today you really need to look at what happened after it was signed and promulgated.
By the time the Declaration was signed the American Revolution was already long underway. Lexington and Concord had been fought the year before. The battle of Bunker Hill had already taken place.
A force of some 20,000 American volunteers styling itself a Continental Army had gathered in and around New York City under the command of George Washington. The British were assembling a mighty land and naval force to launch an assault on the city. Perhaps most ominously, the British had gone out and hired 30,000 Hessian mercenaries. These were professional German soldiers – famed the world over – not only for their discipline but for their ferocity. They were also known to refuse to take prisoners and to bayonet wounded enemy soldiers on the field of battle.
What happened next was a disaster for the Americans. The British handily defeated George Washington and came within a hair’s breadth of destroying his entire army. They chased what remained of Washington’s command across New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.
Philadelphia fell. The Continental Congress, those brave gentlemen who had so famously signed the Declaration only months before, fled in terror. Only the onset of winter prevented the complete destruction of what remained of Washington’s army. Those pitiful few thousand men struggled to survive.
Every day there were fewer of them. Ninety percent of the force that had defended New York was gone. More men deserted every day.
In New Jersey, in a string of armed encampments British forces went into winter quarters. They would finish the job of crushing this “revolution” in the spring.
Then Washington proposed a plan. He would cross the Delaware back into New Jersey and attack a Hessian garrison at Trenton. He would go on the offensive.
We might well assume the reaction to Washington’s plan was to think him mad. zIn point of fact, we don’t have to assume. His subordinates were stunned. In their view, the only thing keeping them from being annihilated was the ice-choked Delaware River. Now Washington was proposing, in the dead of winter, with the ragged remnants of an army, to go across that river and engage the British once again in battle.
Reservations aside they saluted and complied. Their men – sick, exhausted, and demoralized – did likewise. They got up, shouldered their weapons, and moved out.
From all up and down the river, they commandeered boats. A unit composed primarily of fishermen from Massachusetts took charge of the massive job of ferrying thousands of men across the Delaware in the dead of night on Christmas day 1776. By morning December 26, 1776, Washington’s men were in Trenton.
The engagement that followed was short and decisive. Twenty-two Hessians were killed and ninety-two wounded. Nine hundred and eighteen were captured. At least four hundred fled.
Two American soldiers died of exposure during the operation. Five were wounded. Not a single American was killed by enemy fire.
Washington and his army, with the arms and supplies they seized, from Trenton were back across the Delaware before the British commander, General Howe, received word of the attack.
Trenton did not end the Revolutionary War. Years of hard fighting still lay ahead. Yet, Trenton changed everything.
Up until Trenton, the new, self-styled Americans had been beaten at virtually every turn. The Revolution appeared to be well on its way to being snuffed out. The Declaration contained a lot of brave words, but they seemed to be just that- words.
The fundamental question remained unanswered. What were we, the Americans, prepared to do to back up those words, to give them meaning? It appeared not very much. Defeat seemed imminent.
Trenton said otherwise. Trenton said we might be defeated in battle, but we would never surrender. We would never quit. We would, quite literally, die on our feet, but we would never live on our knees.
What would we do to achieve our freedom? Whatever it took. No surrender.
Today, we face great challenges in this nation, perhaps as great as any we have faced in our history. Petty tyrants in governor’s mansions across the country seek to take advantage of a health crisis to strip us of our rights and our dignity. Marxists and anarchists in our streets threaten our safety and seek to turn us against each other in pursuit of revolutionary Communist ideals.
Americans feel under attack. They feel uncertain. There is a whiff of something decidedly un-American in the air – of defeatism.
The question weighs on all of us. What can we do? What are we willing to do to maintain that freedom bought at such a dear price by our forefathers?
The answer is clear. It is the same now as it was then. Whatever it takes.
We are all descendants of the men who crossed the Delaware and attacked Trenton. Not genealogically. That is irrelevant. Your family may have come over on the Mayflower. You may have gotten your citizenship last week.
It is immaterial. We are all Americans. We do not take orders from tyrants. We don’t beg for privileges. We stand up for our rights. We don’t cower in fear and allow thugs and vandals to control our cities. We protect ourselves, our communities, and our history.
We have faced seemingly insurmountable challenges ever since the birth of this great nation. We have overcome them all. Nothing has changed.
No surrender. Put the defeatism aside. Time to stand up and move out, America. Time to give the words meaning.