Today’s Headlines, Circa 1776

The Founders are a constant source of inspiration, and a frequent reminder that there are few new things under the sun. Consider these lines from David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, relating to the treatment of British and Hessian prisoners of war by the Continental Army:

Washington and his officers set a high standard in their treatment of Hessian captives at Trenton. He issued instructions that “the officers and men should be separated. I wish the former may be well treated, and that the latter may have such principles instilled in them during their confinement, that when they return, they may open the Eyes of their Countrymen.”
Not all Americans wanted to do these things. Always some dark spirits wished to visit the same cruelties on the British and Hessians that had been inflicted on American captives. But Washington’s example carried growing weight, more so than his written orders and prohibitions. He often reminded his men that they were an army of liberty and freedom, and that the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should extend even to their enemies…. Even in the most urgent moments of the war, these men were concerned about ethical questions in the Revolution.

As always, the Founders are hard to live up to. These are the words with which Fischer concludes his excellent book:

They set a high example, and we have much to learn from them. Much recent historical writing has served us ill in that respect. In the late twentieth century, too many scholars tried to make the American past into a record of crime and folly. Too many writers have told us that we are captives of our darker selves and helpless victims of our history. It isn’t so, and never was. The story of Washington’s Crossing tells us that Americans in an earlier generation were capable of acting in a higher spirit–and so are we.


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