On this day in 1776, George Washington crossed the Delaware, leading the soldiers of the Continental Army in a surprise attack on a Hessian outpost at Trenton, New Jersey.
After suffering defeat in the Battle of Long Island and losing New York City to the British, the Patriot forces were in danger of losing the Revolutionary War. Hoping to mount a comeback and surprise the Hessians who were celebrating Christmas, Washington planned a night crossing of the half-frozen waters of the Delaware River.
Washington had an unconventional attack planned, but another key element of his strategy was to employ some especially motivational words, words that would light a fire under an army that was freezing on the shores of the Delaware. On Christmas Eve, the day before the crossing, Washington ordered that Thomas Paine’s The American Crisis be read aloud to troops of the Continental Army.
In words that he had written just one day before, Paine frames the situation with stirring words that challenge the Patriots to move forward with courage and to seize this opportunity to transform the trials they face into a triumph:
THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as freedom should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to tax) but “to bind us in all cases whatsoever,” and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God. . . .
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 and to repulse it.
After successfully crossing the Delaware, Washington and his men arrived at Trenton the next day. Catching the Hessians off guard and hung over from their Christmas Day celebrations, the Americans won an easy victory.
Victory in the Revolutionary War would not come for five more years, but the success of the Colonial Army at Trenton revived the spirits of the American colonists, showing them that victory was possible.
Today’s Challenge: Say It So You Can Make It So
What is something you feel so strongly about that you would advise everyone to do it? As Paine’s writing demonstrates, words have the power to move people to action, the kind of action that can change the course of history. Write a speech in which you argue for a specific call to action on the part of your audience. As the title of your speech, finish the following: Why everyone should . . .
The following are some examples of possible topics:
Why everyone should learn a second language.
Why everyone should meditate.
Why everyone should study abroad.
Why everyone should take a self-defense class.
Why everyone should sing in the shower.
Why everyone should read more fiction.
Why everyone should vote.
Why everyone should use the Oxford comma.
Provide clear reasons, evidence, and explanation. In addition to logic, move your audience with emotion by showing how important your suggested activity is and how it will bring fulfillment to their lives. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)
1- Paine, Thomas. The American Crisis. 23 Dec. 1776. Public Domain. http://www.ushistory.org/paine/crisis/c-01.htm.