Monday, February 2, 2009

Pulling the Thread

One loose end from President Obama's Inaugural Address: the mysterious quote that George Washington ordered read to the troops.

So let us mark this day with remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At the moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people:

'Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive... that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].'
In 1776, Washington and the Continental Army had abandoned New York (and Philadelphia) and near the Delaware River ("the shores of an icy river"). Thomas Paine, who was in camp, began writing (at Washington's invitation) a series of papers that became "The Crisis."

The first of these papers (from which the above quote was taken) was published in Philadelphia on December 19th. Less than a week later, Washington and his men climbed into wooden boats, rowed across the Delaware, and surprised the Hessian mercenaries at Trenton, a moment captured (and turned iconographic) by painter Emanuel Leutze.

But it should come as no surprise to learn that previous presidents -- and in particular, Abraham Lincoln -- have made reference to the Delaware Crossing.

On his way to his Inaugural, Lincoln took a whistle-stop tour down the eastern seaboard (a trip repeated, in part, by Obama and VP Joe Biden last month). While in Trenton, Lincoln spoke to the New Jersey State Senate, saying:

May I be pardoned if, upon this occasion, I mention that away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I got hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen, Weem's Life of Washington. I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton, New-Jersey. The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event; and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others. I recollect thinking then, boy even though I was, that there must been something more than common that those men struggled for; that something even more than National Independence; that something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come; I am exceedingly anxious that this Union, the Constitution, and the liberties of the people shall be perpetuated in according with the original idea for which that struggle was made, and I shall be most happy indeed if I shall be an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and of this, his almost chosen people, for perpetuating the object of that great struggle.

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