This election year has been defined by candidates in both parties who are promising a political revolution. A majority of the American people are calling out for real change — for dethroning a comfortable and overbearing elite and replacing it with a more accountable government.
But if 2016 is a revolutionary year, it is also an appropriate year to remember the real revolution in our American history.
After all, in this 240th anniversary year of American independence, who better to look to than the key figure of the American Revolution, George Washington? Certainly his contemporaries — men like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — saw Washington as the greatest of them all.
The Founding Fathers knew that George Washington was truly the indispensable man, as we portray in our new documentary film, “The First American.” While many of the Founders focused on words and ideals, it was up to Washington to win the war and hold the new nation together.
Today, in this season of insurgency in both parties, the story of Washington’s leadership during the summer of 1776 is the perfect reminder that aspirations are not enough to win a revolution. Big goals require action and hard work to accomplish. Presidential candidates and their supporters who aspire to carry forward a political revolution in 2016 should take note.
The first Independence Day, July 4, 1776, began with lofty aspirations. On that day, the delegates to the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia issued the Declaration of Independence. And certainly, this was a historic achievement: their vision has been the underlying political inspiration for Americans across many generations, and it remains so today. Presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama have pointed to our shared belief in the ideals of the Declaration as the very thing that makes us American.
But in fact, it was not the Declaration that finally won Americans their independence. It was the unfathomable effort of an army, and the sheer fortitude of its leader, George Washington.
In this sense, Philadelphia was not the most important theatre during the summer of 1776. Instead, it was New York City, 100 miles northeast, where the Patriots determined whether the Declaration of Independence would have real meaning.
In New York harbor in early July of that year, more than 30,000 British troops and highly trained Hessian mercenaries were being offloaded on Staten Island. The British goal was to defeat the Continental Army and kill the American Revolution in its infancy.
Watching the British from across the harbor on Manhattan were just 9,000 troops under the command of General George Washington.
The stakes could not have been higher. As Washington himself wrote in his general order of July 2, 1776: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine, whether Americans are to be, Freemen, or Slaves…The fate of unborn Millions will now depend, under God, on the Courage and Conduct of this army — Our cruel and unrelenting Enemy leaves us no choice but a brave resistance, or the most abject submission; this is all we can expect — We have therefore to resolve to conquer or die.”
One week later, on July 9, 1776, General Washington ordered the Declaration read to his troops in southern Manhattan. The troops listened to the inspiring words of the Declaration as they watched the British ships on the horizon. Afterward, in response, soldiers joined civilians rushing to the statue of King George III on Bowling Green. The crowd tore it down, and later melted the lead to make more than 40,000 bullets for use against the British.
Despite the excitement among his troops, Washington faced an impossible military situation in New York that summer. Without ships to transport his army swiftly across the waters surrounding New York City, there was no way he could prevail against a superior military force with a gigantic navy.
Nevertheless, Washington was determined to make a stand. He divided his army and put troops on Long Island to meet the British in what would be the largest battle of the entire war. It was a courageous move, but one that proved a disaster for the Patriots. Washington retreated to Brooklyn Heights, where his army faced annihilation. And yet, miraculously, he organized a successful nighttime evacuation of his troops from Brooklyn back to Manhattan. The final stretch of the evacuation, occurring after dawn, was shielded from the view of the British by a dense fog that suddenly appeared to cover the retreat. Eyewitnesses reported that Washington was the last person on shore.
The Continental Army lived to fight another day. And Washington learned a lesson that proved among the most important of the war: as long as he could avoid defeat, he could continue the fight and deny the British victory.
As we learned making “The First American,” keeping the Continental Army together for eight years as a fighting force that could hold its own against the British was a monumental challenge. It was a feat that no other Founding Father could have achieved. And it was the leadership of George Washington that eventually led to victory — and true American independence from Britain.
After the war, Washington resisted the temptation to become the new “King George” and returned to civilian life at his beloved Mount Vernon. Britain’s King George III said that this extraordinary act of deference to the rule of law made Washington the greatest figure of his age. It certainly earned him Americans’ universal trust as our first president.
Looking back from 2016, we know how Washington succeeded after eight long and difficult years. But looking forward from 1776, George Washington, the other founding fathers, and the troops of the Continental Army didn’t know the future. They only knew that they were mutually pledged in support of the Declaration, with a firm reliance on Divine Providence.
Together with incredible effort and sacrifice, it was enough to win a revolution. It is our hope that the legacy of George Washington is not forgotten and will continue to inspire future generations of Americans.