Washington's Crossing

by David Hackett Fischer

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

One central theme that David Hackett Fischer explores is how much a small group of people can accomplish when they act out of commitment to a cause. He demonstrates this idea primarily through his analysis of the Continental Army, led by George Washington, and its actions during the winter of 1776–1777. Fischer furthers this theme, however, in examining other aspects of the Revolutionary War and the former British colonies’s independence movement overall.

Another important theme is the relationship between political principles and military action. To complement and sometimes challenge the many existing studies of the war itself, Fischer intertwined his analysis of the political views that were supported with military action. Rather than posit a complete radical re-envisioning of the new American ideas, Fischer argues for the substantial continuity with British ideologies. One reason the revolutionaries gained success, he shows, was the colonists’s willingness to support relatively familiar ideas.

The “crossing” of the title is literally the now-iconic Christmas crossing of the Delaware River that George Washington commanded. By extension, Fischer refers to Washington’s leadership and the troops’s engagement in the battles of Trenton and Princeton. Fischer agrees with the received wisdom that these battles turned the tide in the American Revolution because they showed that the Continental Army could be a force to be reckoned with both in combat and as an organized entity. It also firmly established Washington’s reputation as a military commander.

Part of the reason for Washington’s success, Fischer points out, was his considerable military experience gained through his service in the British Army; that familiarity encouraged him to adapt his leadership style to the realities of his soldiers’s backgrounds. In this regard, the revolutionaries’s military organization embodied the nascent democratic principles of the new republic. Moreover, as the metaphorical meaning of the title, Washington “crossed” from loyal British subject to rebel American leader; his newly flexible military leadership style was just one component of his newfound commitment to a more horizontal set of relationships among men.

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