As 2020 comes to a close, we must be reminded that the situation we face as Americans in this moment is not unique; in fact, no matter how difficult these times may be for us, those who went before were at moments equally troubled. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine famously wrote in 1776. The time to which he refers is the ongoing struggle of the Revolutionary War, well underway but bogged down in Valley Forge when he wrote that memorable passage. The souls facing that trial were not merely the soldiers freezing their toes off in Pennsylvania, but every inhabitant of the newly-declared independent nation of America. There was no certainty for any of them, save a feeling of divine provenance among the extra-faithful. For the majority, though, these were days and nights filled with varying degrees of doubt and terror…much as some of us are feeling tonight.
What history teaches us though, or would but for our typically poor recollection (or poor education), is that by the time those words were written we’d already been in actual combat for nearly two years. We often carry the mistaken notion that our forefathers declared independence from King George, and the Revolution followed. Even today our leaders and would-be leaders often commend us to “Party like it’s 1776”, as if that is when the Revolution began. This is incorrect. So let’s redress this mistake, and in doing so perhaps fix a better picture in our minds as to where we–you and I–currently are in our own struggle.
As 1774 rolled over to ’75, patriots–who were at that point “seditionists”–had begun making preparations for war. Led by people like Samuel Adams and John Hancock, the earliest American revolutionaries started crafting and storing weapons and ammunition throughout the fall and winter of ’74, primarily in and around Concord, Massachusetts. This was an open secret, one that would lead to the first skirmish of the Revolution (preceded by the midnight ride of Paul Revere) in the Spring of 1775. “The shot heard ’round the world” was fired in April of 1775 by British forces toward a handful–fewer than 50, by eyewitness accounts–of patriots on Lexington Green. That volley, and the small but meaningful battle that took place immediately afterward in Concord, opened the hostilities that were to become the American Revolution–fifteen months before our independence was declared.
This is an important understanding for us to have right now. A few dozen committed men, without actually firing a shot (according to a reliable participant at Lexington) prompted the event that would lead to the formation of the greatest nation the world has ever known. Tensions had built for some time, and “rabble-rousers” like Samuel Adams had drummed these events into a rallying cry for those who believed it was time to free themselves and their colony brethren from the rule of an out-of-touch monarch. Many of those early participants were men of wealth and prestige, who stood to lose everything in pledging themselves to this new righteous cause–yet pledge they did; their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor, as it were.
This is another fact that is often forgotten when we recount the history; independent America was a “new” country, but the colonies from which it sprang were anything but. In fact, the Mayflower had arrived more than 150 years prior to the Battle of Lexington/Concord, and the American colonies had prospered ever since. It is a testament to them that these men of importance, standing, and wealth within the burgeoning economy of the Americas put at risk all they had worked for in the name of securing Liberty for themselves and their families. And this was no small undertaking; Britain was then as America is now, in terms of might and world position. These were truly Davids against a powerful Goliath.
The lessons we can take from this history are many, most of which I’ll leave you to deduce on your own. My primary point is to reiterate that we are not the first Americans to face unfettered tyranny, an unpredictable future, and long odds. We are not the first Americans who have had to contemplate the sacrifice of our established lives and lifestyles in pursuit of a better future for ourselves and our posterity. We are not the first who have had to deal with the questions, the fears, the uncertainty. Most importantly, we are not the first who have faced the prospect of fighting amongst our countrymen; we often forget that the American colonies were anything but united in the cause. Many, many “loyalists” did not want to rock the boat, and in fact cooperated with the Crown against the patriots. The American Civil War was not the first that pitted the citizens of America against one another.
The last point I’ll make is this; at the time Adams and Hancock were gathering their forces and planning their revolution, most in the American colonies were living their ordinary, “normal” lives. Some were rich, some poor, some discontented, and others perfectly happy. Virtually all were “settled” into what they thought was always going to be their routine.
Nothing is routine. “Normal” doesn’t exist. And just because we, as the most powerful nation in the world, have enjoyed a relatively long run of peace and prosperity does not mean we are immune to the foibles of man or the wickedness of history. It is vitally important that on this dawn of the new year, you commit (perhaps as your New Years Resolution) to leave your “normalcy bias” behind. Nothing in the immediate future will be “normal”, according to what we’ve become accustomed to up to this point. Even the difficulties of 2020 will potentially appear “normal”–and we may pine for them–in comparison to the tribulations we will face in 2021.
You must prepare for this. You must accept it. And you must condition yourself now to persevere, no matter the circumstances. I have seen reliable, mathematically sound estimates that say the American population will decrease by as much as seventy percent–seven out of ten gone–within the next five years.
This is the reality we now face.
Despair over it if you must, but only for a bit. Afterward, remember that 250 years ago American colonists were preparing for war with their oppressors. Terrible “times that try men’s souls” commenced, and lasted for quite awhile before the dream of Liberty lifted the bravest and most honorable to the revered position we hold them in today…
The time is upon us when a new generation of revolutionaries must emerge to challenge the tyrannies of those who would enslave us. As with the Adams’, Jefferson, Franklin and the rest, it is also time that leaders come forth who understand the realities that surround us and commit to pulling us through them, at whatever the cost. Clouds are formed on the horizon, and an unavoidable storm stands in wait for us in the coming year.
We will weather it. We will overcome. We will emerge victorious.
Tonight, let’s celebrate like it’s 1774.