The Arts and Entertainment Network (A&E) premiered a movie last week called "The Crossing." It dramatized the events surrounding Christmas night of 1776, when General George Washington led an army of cold, tired, and hungry American soldiers, many of them teenagers, across the Delaware River to surprise and defeat a professional Hessian army in the Battle of Trenton. A&E promoted "The Crossing" as an educational film, and tied it to a nationwide high school essay contest. But that promotion was dishonest. In fact, at the very moment when "The Crossing" had the most to teach, it chose to lie.
The moment in question occurs in the aftermath of the battle, when General Nathaniel Greene informs Washington that that the dying Hessian commander, Colonel Rall, is demanding to see him as a matter of military courtesy. Washington reacts angrily. Why should he be courteous to an officer who had been responsible for the massacre of 500 American soldiers at Brooklyn as they attempted to surrender? Furthermore the Hessians are mercenaries, fighting only for profit. Greene responds: "Our own cause is, at its heart, a fight against British taxation. In the end, sir, we all kill for profit. The British and the Hessians…and us." Washington acquiesces to Greene's assertion of moral (or immoral) equivalence, and rides off to visit Rall.
To say that this exchange rings false would be an understatement. Only a British Loyalist would have denigrated the cause of the Revolution as Greene does here, and most of the known Loyalists at the time were being driven by public sentiment into Canada or back to England. It is absurd to imagine they were serving under General Washington. And we can be even surer that General Washington was not himself a Loyalist!
While King George's partisans might sincerely have believed that the root issue of the Revolution was the payment of taxes simply, for Washington and his fellow revolutionaries it was the principle of self-government a principle incompatible with the idea of taxation without representation.
The historical record on this point is abundant and unequivocal. Consider John Dickinson in 1768: "Those who are taxed without their consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves." Similarly Thomas Jefferson in 1774: "Still less let it be proposed that our properties within our own territories shall be taxed or regulated by any power on earth but our own. The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them."
Washington's own views on the cause of the Revolution, and on the moral distinction between the American and the British armies, would not have been hard to come by, if the makers of "The Crossing" had bothered to look.
On July 2, 1776, Washington addressed his army as follows:
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…. The eyes of all our countrymen are now upon us, and we shall have their blessings and praises if, happily, we are the instruments of saving them from the tyranny meditated against them. Let us therefore animate and encourage each other, and show the whole world, that a freeman contending for liberty on his own ground is superior to any slavish mercenary on earth.
Two days later the Declaration of Independence was published to the world, and five days after that, on July 9, Washington ordered that his soldiers be assembled for a reading of the Declaration, "showing the ground and reasons for [the Revolution]."
In the light of such fact evidence, the exchange between Generals Washington and Greene in "The Crossing" can only remind us of the kind of rewriting of history that we used to associate with Stalinist Russia. Coincidentally, the screenwriter of "The Crossing," Howard Fast, was a longtime member of the American Communist Party who received the Stalin International Peace Prize in 1953. Although he broke publicly with the Party in 1957, the octogenarian Fast remains an ardent socialist. This might explain why he would embrace the Loyalist version of the cause of the American Revolution.
The still-powerful argument of the Declaration that there are rights inherent in every individual rights that limit severely what government may legitimately do is as much a stumbling-block to socialists who would redistribute our property as to a king who would claim it as his own. But no ideology can excuse the willful distortion of history, or the confusion of education with what the communists euphemistically called re-education.
A&E Network, which is viewed in 78 million American homes, is a joint venture of The Hearst Corporation, ABC, and NBC. Shame, shame, shame!