Paul Greenberg

In the course of human events, one thing remains certain: We forget. Somewhere over murky time, Washington's Birthday faded away, and was absorbed into another three-day holiday with no distinguishing marks except maybe ... Giant Sales! It is the American way. By celebrating all presidents equally on some made-up Presidents' Day, we now celebrate none in particular. Definition is lost; a generalized fuzz takes the place of the history that made us. And we forget.

We forget what it was like the winter after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, and how all its brave words began to sound hollow as defeat followed defeat.

New York was lost. The mightiest empire in the world had taken the offensive, and the ragtag continentals were scattering before it. But then General Washington and his troops gave the American people a rousing Christmas present.

Crossing the Delaware, Washington's column emerged on the Jersey side, overrunning the enemy camp, taking hundreds of prisoners before crossing back into Pennsylvania with their prisoners and new caches of supplies. Then they crossed the river again to continue the fight. Sending in reinforcements, Lord Cornwallis must have been sure he had the old fox bagged. Instead, it was Washington who had him, defeating the British at Trenton and, for good measure, routing their rearguard at Princeton, too.

At the moment when the whole American experiment was in peril, Washington would defy not justthe enemy but despair. Not just once but again and again, in war and peace and in between.

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Historians used to have a name for the uncertain years between the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution: the critical period. For nothing so disorganizes an army, or even a country, as victory. America had finally freed itself from the British Empire, but it would be years before it would overcome the centrifugal forces that kept the United States of America from becoming united states.

As the woefully weak government under the old Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to deal with one challenge after another, the no longer young general would watch with growing concern as the nascent Union foundered. British troops refused to leave frontier forts in accordance with the peace treaty, the national currency grew worthless, the economy faltered, trade was paralyzed. The new government, largely paralyzed because it required the unanimous consent of all the states to act, was powerless to reverse the trend. Mobs marched and a rebellion flared in Massachusetts.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.