September 20–Today–250 Years Ago

Americanism Redux

September 20, 250 years ago today

For now, their lives are apart. Separate and unjoined. They don’t know it but Down River—in the future—they will collide in the roaring waters. That day awaits, a lamp moving over a black surface. 

A 50-year old man writes a letter. Living in Virginia, he encloses a copy of family documents important to the woman who is waiting anxiously. He knows her as a friend. He believes helping someone less fortunate is a good thing to do. To live the right way is…the path of virtue?

A 42-year old man, born in Newfoundland, thinks to himself about his remarkable year thus far. He will arrive at Parliament where he has been elected to serve in the House of Commons. He will go there with a new rank, Major-General. Such British accolades for someone not born in England. To reap rewards of one’s efforts is…an outcome of virtue?

A 31-year old man looks at his third child, a son, born a day ago. A native of New Haven, Connecticut, he wonders about the future of the baby, of the family, of himself. It’s not been easy. In and out of debt. In and out of clashes with other people, who always seem less deserving than he, at least in his mind. In and out of arguments with his wife, who is listening to rumors of his infidelity and possible sexual disease. Just not been easy. To overcome the barriers put in your way…a trial of virtue?

A 22-year old weary-looking man works on his family farm outside Tarrytown, New York. It’s harvest time here. Fruit, grain, hay. The pumpkins are ready. No frost yet. When it arrives the day of hog butchering won’t be far behind. He’ll go back to the cabin and clean his musket. Maybe go hunting tonight. To work and toil without complaint—or opportunity, either…a fate of virtue?

A 21-year old strikingly handsome and charismatic man finishes his first year as a lieutenant in the British Army, the 7th Regiment of Foot. He hopes his parents are proud. They are wealthy people and expect him to live a life of privileged culture and social status. He’ll try the officer’s life and who knows, if a Newfoundland-born chap can get the rank of a general officer and a seat in Parliament, maybe he can all the more easily. To live one’s position to the fullest…a destiny of virtue?

A 12-year old girl lives in an affluent family in a fancy house in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her father is a judge, lawyer, politician, a knower-of-anyone-worth-knowing. She is uniquely beautiful for her pre-teen age, with a hint of too-early-sexuality and flirtatiousness. She notices that boys notice her but that’s not what interests her—she notices that men notice her and that’s what intrigues her. To change out reality for fantasy…a diversion from virtue?

Also

We’ll move on from these six people. Leave them there, where they are, unknown to each other on this day. We’ll travel the River up ahead. To the future, where it’s eight years forward, on this very same day.

Our Letter-Writer is George Washington, military commander of American forces in the Revolutionary War, and he’s near West Point, New York, about to learn of a tragedy and potential vulnerability to kidnapping, treason, and the collapse of the American Cause.

Our Newfoundland-Born British general and Parliament members is Henry Clinton and he’s made a secret offer to an enemy, seize the war’s momentum, and who knows, perhaps nab the rebel commander Washington as part of the stolen fort.

Our Father of Third Child is Benedict Arnold and he’s accepted, treasonously, Clinton’s secret offer of money, title, and military authority in exchange for giving the British access to the most important American military post in the Revolutionary War being waged, West Point. Arnold is on the move, crossing the river at night to avoid detection and capture by his own comrades.

Our Young But Old Looking Farmer is David Williams and he’ll be on horseback with two other men, loosely affiliated with Washington’s American army, and they will stumble onto a dashing young officer named Anderson with papers hidden in his boot. They’ll seize him and carry him to a local American military unit for examination, interrogation, and ultimately, discovery.

Our Handsome Young Officer is John Andre, and he’ll use the fake name of John Anderson after having helped negotiate and facilitate the treason/switch-of-sides by Benedict Arnold. The disguise and name and boot-concealment will be Arnold’s idea, who left for the river and left Andre to fend for himself the best he could.

Our Beautiful Girl is Peggy Shippen, newly married as the second wife of Arnold and who, when Washington arrives at West Point and is within minutes of possibly capturing her husband, fools the American general with the performance of a lifetime, crying, shrieking, yelling, lashing out uncontrollably, mimicking a mental frenzy, distracting Washington as a damsel in distress. Her husband gets away across the river in the night.

On this day in 1780, the River will run fast and deep in the darkness. These six souls will be soaked in raging waters.

For You Now

Virtue.

It’s a major topic in the political debates and philosophical explorations of the American founding. You cannot exaggerate its importance, as imperative in concept as the Declaration of Independence is in writing.

On the rebel side, beginning largely in the mid-1760s, two questions have been constantly asked: can we be virtuous in an empire we regard as corrupt? And then this: do we have the virtue to be a self-governing people, a republic? All along the way since the mid-1760s, do we display virtue in opposition to the empire? Some say yes, some say no, some say shut up.

The assumption among many rebels was that virtue was vital. Couldn’t exist as a people without it. Didn’t deserve to exist. Wouldn’t exist for long. So great and deeply held is the belief that the word—virtue–really ought to be understood as capitalized, Virtue.

For many rebel thinkers, analysts, commentators, and more, Virtue is the end-all and be-all of republicanism.

None of this is to say that the people who supported independence were inherently virtuous. Not at all. If you say that’s my point then you’re purposely misrepresenting me. It is, however, utterly appropriate and accurate to say that a significant group of them believed virtue needed to be in sufficient supply among the population and the population’s leadership. Otherwise, the argument went, we may be born but we’re already dead. Not everyone on the rebel side adopted this view, but many certainly did.

That’s why in 1780 the fact of Arnold’s treason represented a nuclear-like explosion across the American landscape. The minds and spirit of the American side shuddered with the blast and the fallout. One of the best American military field commanders had chosen to betray the fledgling nation to its enemy. If him, who’s next? If he’s not to be trusted, who can be?

“I’ve seen the enemy and it is us.”

Suggestion

Think back eight years. Do you see a point where a few people, strangers before, converged in a major national moment? If not yet, wait and they will. Somewhere on the scale it may include you. Nationally? A bit of a long shot, sure. But significantly in your life and with the people touched by you? Absolutely so and dead-on certain. Be well.  

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