As we gathered together as family and friends to celebrate the 245th anniversary of this grand experiment of democracy, I am acutely aware of the toll the past year has taken on us all. Between the pandemic and loss and illness of so many, to the civil unrest and racial injustice, to the corrosive and bitter political divisions plaguing our country, it is easy to get discouraged and disheartened.
However, I just finished reading two books that came at the perfect time for me, and I want to share them with you.
The first is The Indispensables by Patrick K. O'Donnell. This renowned historian tells the story of average farmers, fishers, and tradespeople from Marblehead, Mass., who became the backbone of General George Washington's fledgling Continental Army and the precursor to today's Navy and Marine Corps. O'Donnell's meticulously researched book describes how the first fully integrated unit in US military history repeatedly snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, not as a dry account of history but like an action-adventure novel. It describes how this intrepid group of citizens, known as The Indispensables, set the country on the path to freedom, independence, and the dream of liberty for all Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or religion. Were they perfect? No more perfect than we are as human beings today. But these imperfect humans set a course for us that we celebrate today.
One part of The Indispensables resonates after this past year and a half. O'Donnell describes how the crushing defeats and retreats from Long Island and Manhattan put the future of the Continental Army in serious jeopardy. Our short experiment at self-governance was at risk of becoming a footnote in history. Thomas Paine, sensing that the tide was turning even amongst the most ardent Patriots, penned the now-famous essay "The Crisis":
"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated"
O'Donnell describes how Washington realized a bold stroke was needed at this pivotal and dark time and thus hatched the Christmas Eve offensive across the Delaware River into New Jersey. Washington placed the future of the Continental Army, his command, and the entire enterprise of freedom into the hands of these average Americans. He then won a string of improbable victories that turned the Revolutionary War's tide militarily and, more importantly, psychologically.
The other book I just finished, The Last Green Valley, highlights the choices families made in the waning days of WWII about whether to live under the yoke of tyranny or make a long trek to freedom and a better way of life. The heartbreaking and inspiring story, by author Mark Sullivan, follows a Ukrainian family, the Martels, who endure gut-wrenching decisions along their journey to find the Last Green Valley. I won't spoil the book for you, other than to say the drive to be free, the strength of faith, and the hope to find a better life motivates millions worldwide to this day, despite the hardships and political shortcomings of their final destination, wherever that may be.
As I sit in the quiet surrounding the hoopla and celebrations of America's Independence Day, I am struck by the challenges we continue to face in our country. Yet, I remain optimistic that undaunted by the summer soldiers around us. We will rise above these challenges. We will make the bold decisions necessary to preserve our grand experiment and forge along our trek towards a more optimistic future for our country.