Is America Losing its Way? - How Staying the Course Will Win A Nation
The Dangerous Illusion of Entitlement
America has been a land that has inspired dreams. Our nation is based on unique and universal ideas. We had such a humble beginning where the aspirations of people from different backgrounds and cultures and languages and economic class all were equal in their reach for something that once seemed impossible. We have been a country of ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And yet, we are in danger of becoming a culture become fragmented into belligerent division, each claiming its own virtue, and each living in the illusion of self-righteousness. The liberty that is a precious gift has been forsaken and replaced by an openly permissive demand for it. Persistent idealism has grown into angry cynicism. Every week it seems we see the very freedom demanded to speak is then denied to others.
It is in America that thirteen small colonies declared a dream they were determined to come true. Yet now... we are threatened by a new and particularly dangerous American disease. Its symptoms include ingratitude and ignorance, over-sensitivity and the pervasive belief that Liberty is owned by a select few. This is our moment in the cross-hairs of deniability. It is not the threat of faith, poverty, economy, or demagoguery, or of the dictatorships that we see in much of the world today. It is the disease of living in a world of entitlement and fantasy.
All of this has begun to unravel our single-mindedness of purpose and belief and the cost that is to be paid for neglecting to remember this lesson of American history.
How The British Blundered Away The American Colonies
In the spring of 1777, Ben Franklin arrived in Paris in an effort to acquire a large loan from King Louis XIV to help supply the colonists with a Navy and other supplies. The King refused to see Franklin, who was both a curiosity and a hero to the French, but not worthy of the respect afforded to other nobility.
Franklin had hoped that the French would support the Colonists. It has been slow to come and expectations of support from Louis XIV hadn't happened. And - without news of a victory, he knew the King wouldn’t consider siding with the Americans. Forced to wait it out, Franklin wrote ‘’I think that life is rather like a chess game, where patience ultimately reveals your adversaries hand and leaves each move that you make vulnerable for its own sacrifice.’’ 1 Franklin’s popularity and his fame as the man ‘’who tamed electricity’' earned him the right to stay at Versailles while awaiting word from the colonists.
His greatest gift was in understanding how to work a crowd. Fluent in French, Franklin consistently referred to the colonists as ''lumières.'' The word was chosen with a deliberate measure by Franklin, for he sensed all too well that the French had greatly admired the courage of the American colonists and that one of their own, Marquis de Lafayette, was heroically supporting George Washington. But Franklin also had to be careful because he was tapping into the French dissatisfaction with the ''Ancien-Regime.'' It was a very delicate balancing act and Franklin was masterful at it.
The Colonists Face Defeat
Meanwhile, the American colonists fighting for Independence were in serious trouble. At the northern portion of the Hudson River, the British launched an attack on Fort Ticonderoga. To get the setting visualized for you, Fort Ticonderoga was a legitimate military bastion, complete with sloped walls and grooves cut from the tops of the walls in just such a manner that guns could be mounted. It was considered state-of-the-art at its time.
Hudson River Campaign
The British had planned a two-pronged attack on the Fort with Gentleman John Burgoyne and his 7500 men coming down from the north and General William Howe and his 10,000 ship Navy coming from the south. Burgoyne’s men were initially steadfast in their loyalty thanks to the three-hundred supply wagons of booze and girls that accompanied the army. This was a welcome convenience when the British weren't fighting. As soon as it became clear that the colonists were going to put up a much harder defense than they thought, these wagons full of unnecessary things simply got in the way. It would catch up to Burgoyne too.
As it would happen, the American holdout had just 2500 soldiers. Untied by large constraints, the Americans could move quickly. But numbers were numbers, and the weaponry of the British was far superior than that of the colonists. When Burgoyne successfully set a cannon atop a mountain clearly overlooking the fort, the Americans surrendered without having a single shot in the engagement.
Ben Franklin entertaining the ladies. Something he did remarkably well
With 2500 men simply laying down their arms, the British assumed that this would become the rule, not the exception. As a result, General Howe underestimated the enemy and believed that this would be the result for the Americans wherever they met British redcoats. Suddenly a startling change of plans was about to occur.
Instead of meeting up with Burgoyne on the Hudson, as was the plan, General Howe headed south with his huge Navy. This was not in the plan. In fact, to many, it was risky and impulsive. But Howe also had supporters who endorsed such courage. It was completely his decision to deviate from a plan that involved other members of leadership. And, as a result, he undocked his Naval fleet from the Hudson, had just one destination - Philadelphia.
FLAWS IN LEADERSHIP POLICIES
Many nations at this time employed mercenary soldiers. This has a tendency to take the ''spirit'' out of the fight and make the fight for salary, rank, and position rather than for country. So it wasn't exactly uncommon that the British had a fundamental flaw in their military. Each General was accorded fame and fortune back home whenever they won a key battle.
This was so customary in fact, that Benedict Arnold wasn't exactly wrong in expecting to be recognized for his own heroism later at Saratoga. So when Burgoyne received the credit for Ticonderoga, Howe simply headed to Philadelphia to make his own name for himself. George Washington then took 26,000 mainly untrained soldiers down to the tip of Maryland where Howe’s men landed.
According to some military historians, Washington was an overrated General. He had mixed success in the seven-years war (Also known as the French-Indian war) and he seemed to be vulnerable when facing a two-front battle. But he was determined and sure of himself, locked onto one cause. And yet, he had a certain tendency to repeat the mistakes of the past. On two occasions, Washington was caught by surprise when Howe split his troops and attacked him from the back while simultaneously attacking from the front. This was just one of those times.
Washington was outflanked by Howe and retreated quickly, but he ultimately left Philadelphia undefended. It was a tremendous blow to the colonists. Howe paraded around Philadelphia but instead of burning the city to the ground, Howe enjoyed its nightlife and spared many of its citizens even financial loss. He had hoped this would make the city loyal to the British. Indeed, there were a number of wealthy British sympathizers in Philadelphia and their wealth was something Howe was well aware of. At the same time, Burgoyne headed down the Hudson River where a small outpost called Saratoga was being heavily defended by a large force led by Horatio Gates and a general who was renowned for his courage, Benedict Arnold.
Gates was the older of the two and he advocated waiting until the British came to them before fighting. But Arnold saw the opportunity to attack Burgoyne while they awaited Howe’s men. Gates delayed long enough for Burgoyne to enlist the aid of 300 Iroquois Indians, resulting in a huge argument between Gates and Arnold. ‘’By waiting this long we are allowing the British inconceivable advantages!”’ argued Arnold. Ethan Allen, who was by all accounts, a military neophyte had newfound false-bravado. He had passed over Arnold in recognition at the Battle of Brandywine Creek, while many had considered him to be a drunk. Now Arnold intended to defy Gates and attack at Saratoga anyway.
With no new soldiers joining the continentals it looked like America’s try for independence was stalled. Burgoyne had felt that the addition of the 300 Iroquois were going to make a huge difference and he gave them instructions to raid the town of Saratoga and take no prisoners. Two Iroquois scouts returned with the scalp of prominent woman of the town, Jane Gray. They had done what they were told but the result was utterly repulsive to Burgoyne who correctly assessed that it would rally new soldiers everywhere within a matter of weeks.
As Burgoyne made his way down the Hudson, the assistance Howe was supposed to have offered never arrived. Suddenly, at Saratoga, Benedict Arnold rallies his men and his team of snipers under the direction of Kentucky Bourbon maker, Cmdr. Daniel Morgan. Arnold gets shot in the leg and the men began to panic - but despite the fact he was bleeding and wounded, he crawls up the hill at Saratoga urging his men to follow and they did. Burgoyne never did get the help from Howe that was promised and Burgoyne would lose the battle of Saratoga.
Back in Paris, Franklin had remained more-or-less a permanent fixture in the King's court. But this news was most welcome. Finally Franklin gets the confirmation of victory he had been waiting for. He tells King Louis XIV that he can feel good about providing a Navy and a large amount of Ammunition and guns to help the cause. Furthermore, the loan needed to fund the war was in the hands of a new nation that would prove more than capable of paying it back. (In many ways, this loan did much to deplete the French treasury and lead to their own revolution - one of the many ironies we find throughout history.)
The tide of the Revolutionary War had changed, and America was on her way to becoming its own country. France declared war on England igniting a truly ‘World War.’
The French Navy stood at the Chesapeake Bay and prevented the British from supplying Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown. They could taste victory as the noose tightened and tightened around the British. In addition, the other British Colonies were watching very carefully at what was happening in the New World and it was inevitable that revolt would happen elsewhere. Much of the world was enamored with the upstart and underdog Americans and were looking for a reason to fight the British.
Battle of Yorktown
The Grand Experiment of America was soon to begin. But deviating from the plan cost the British far more than they ever could have imagined. Their overseas colonial empire was about to collapse, little-by-little. Burgoyne and Howe had more than enough soldiers to put down any rebellion but Howe grew conceited and overconfident. Not only did he deviate from the original plan, but he told almost no one, leaving it impossible for Burgoyne to effectively plan to engage.
Secondly, he failed to truly ‘’defeat’’ the Americans in Philadelphia, instead becoming a captive in the very city he sought to conquer. Also, by not finishing off the Americans at Philadelphia, he allowed them to regroup and to attack the smaller army. Howe could keep Philadelphia, but the American capital could simply pick up and move at will. It drove the British crazy because the colonists simply didn't fight along traditional military discipline. Americans were willing to fight the British one bullet at a time, hiding behind trees, shooting from rooftops, and not being in formation.
And then came the issue of the narcissism and self-importance of General Burgoyne’s personality. His supply wagons, full of evening wear, alcohol and prostitutes, did not endear him to other British fighters. Time and time again, these wagons cost the British valuable time and resources and hurt morale for the soldiers. Their efforts on the battlefield would show that despite their undoubted courage, these men were tired and not really fighting for a cause they believed in.
The secret to the success of the Americans is that they knew all they needed was a stalemate and the British would not have the resolve to keep fighting. Even when the Cross of St. George flew victorious over battlefields, they continued to lose the war. The very thing that doomed Burgoyne and Howe was the same thing that made Arnold such an effective leader. He knew that he had to finish off the enemy and not allow himself to be made a captive in his own success.
More good news came upon Franklin and he began to trump the colonists victories in a very public manner, hoping to get the support of the French nobility - which was another source of revenue for the upstart Americans. Soon, couriers relayed notes to him that the war had and the resolve of the colonists were growing more and more successful by the day.
His immense patience paid off. He had one goal, to get the French sold on American Independence. It was a delicate proposition given all of the money he was borrowing. And yet, he never deviated or wavered in his goal and it paid off. Often he had no cards to play but his skill at making the French believe that America did have options was tied to his diplomacy and the intrigue he was able to create through his coyness and ability to wait without panicking was one major reason why we ultimately won the war.
Had the British not changed their vision or their plans, much of their battlefield losses would have likely been avoided. The system that the British had developed of rewarding individuals rather than the team would also be yet another cause for their demise. Even when it seemed like the Americans would easily be beaten, the men who fought for our independence never lost sight of the goal. It is so ironic that the goal was to simply cause a stalemate. The young American army knew the British would eventually tire of chasing them.
Howe would return to Britain in disgrace before the war even ended. Joining him would be Benedict Arnold, who was passed over so frequently for promotion and had not been paid since the early parts of the war.
His betrayal of Washington at West Point alerted him to the need to recognize his men for their hard work and heroism. At the same time however, Washington couldn't understand Arnold's desires for recognition and money. Did he not understand the colonists were fighting for something much more sacred? Time and time again, Washington didn't seem to see Arnold's need for promotion and desire to become even wealthier. Washington paid out of his own pocket to field a militia, and he lived out in the elements with them when they set up camp.
One thing is certain, the men who had such common courage and yet different backgrounds were successful because they kept their message to the people very simple. If we had failed in our fight for independence, many would have surely died. The harsh British treatment of prisoners quite possibly pushed the colonists into a corner. Either fight through to victory, or die trying. The commonality of their cause and the commonality of their fate were intrinsically tied together in ways that we seldom can imagine today.
The Disunited States of America in 2017
Freedom means the opportunity to be what we never thought we would be.
Today our discord and dissension is a dividing factor. Back in 1776, it was a uniting factor. There are states in our nation today where litigation is on the table to remove the American flag from all places of public business. It is considered ''offensive'' to some people. Today, there is litigation in many of the states to remove granite statues to the men who were willing to fight, and die, for this country. The statues are seen as ''offensive.''
To live in America in 2017 is to take in an enormous amount of information. We sometimes are guilty of living in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We don't seem to challenge our own ideas of research or learning when being inundated with news. This is because our ambiguous journalistic experience is designed to shape history around our beliefs rather than to let our beliefs be shaped by events as they happen.
But the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great news hoaxes of the age. And it permeates in ''the Resistance'' and leads to demonstrate for any reason against the current president under the guise of various causes. We suffer primarily not from our lack of knowledge but of our incapability to accept anything that is contrary to what one believes already. We see an entire segment of Americans that are products not of facts, but of illusions. Deaf to the social implications We have neglected the reality of our birth as a nation, and put unrealistic images we have put in their place.
If you are a daily captive by news as it happens, then you have seen the merciless prescription for healing. It maintains the usual totalitarian pretext that the elected officials in Washington seem to have decided is good for common order. The astonishingly simple point of American weakness is in its collective gossip otherwise known as the everyday press.
Whole segments of America are bound together by a self-righteous conformity that sees villains in all who do not adhere to their beliefs. The phrases which catch our attention are used by the agents of fear who promise a juicy tidbit of information, whether true-or-not. After all, who doesn't want to hear the latest ''bombshell'' report or the ''shocking'' news? Gossip and suspicion can be constantly reignited on a slow news day. And we cannot seem to get enough of it.
But we can find our way back. There is still a part of our culture which remains active, living by the hope that our travels will seek out truth and offer perspective. Americans are accustomed to listening and understanding one another and our experiences.
I often wonder just what it is that people find offensive about our American story. History is scarcely taught any longer. Our students are being taught we are somehow a bad place, a pariah in the world stage. It is setting a dangerous precedent that puts the next generation at risk of becoming victims of their own design.
Eventually, the complete whitewashing of our own story by those who divide will result in the loss of their own story. This is a dangerous place for us to be. For Americans to deny the history which we live with each day is to deny our very special place in the world today.
One thing is certain. None of these founding men changed or reversed course. They united themselves in the strength of their own reality. Each knew what they were fighting for.
The colonists did not deviate from the plan. They disagreed, they argued, they compromised. Then it all happened again and again throughout out history. But in today's America, polarization makes compromise more and more challenging. It would be wise to re-learn this moment in history.
For had it not been for Franklin's decision to hold-out at all costs with great patience, we almost certainly would have not been able to endure through to the end. And - by staying true to the Revolution, George Washington gave all Americans something he-himself proved willing to die for. Freedom.
So we know what happens when we stay the course. But one question remains. What happens when we deviate from that path, and where will it take us?
I hope to never know. ###