Women of Washington

Communicating America’s Founding Principles

Women of Washington is an educational organization with a focus on understanding local, national, and global issues that are critical to our world today.



by Judy Leithe 

In January of 1776, English born, Thomas Paine, stirred the Colonists' passions for freedom from the tyrannical rule of King George III.  In his widely circulated Common Sense pamphlet, Paine pressed for a government of Republicanism, with elected officials, as opposed to Parliamentary monarchy.  As Editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine, Paine continued writing The American Crisis articles; the most famous one, written December 23, 1776, was just entitled, 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 everything it's value..."

 The "summer soldiers" referred to the farmers who would join up to fight the British once their crops were planted; and the "sunshine patriots" were those who fought as long as things were going well, but deserted when the weather and conditions weren't so favorable. 

The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4th, amid great celebrations.  However, just weeks later, British forces, under General Howe, outnumbered and defeated General Washington's army at the Battles of Long Island and White Plains, New York.  Along with taking control of New York City, by mid-November, Howe had also captured Fort Washington, which gave the British army strategic control over the Hudson River.  Within days, the American army had to abandon Fort Lee in New Jersey, as well. 

In the fall and early winter of 1776, the wretched conditions of the Continental Army cannot be overstated.  After vacating New York, they began a five-day march across New Jersey, where Washington had expected to add an influx of fresh militia and supplies for his army.  Instead, he found that thousands of New Jersey residents had taken the loyalty oath to the King of England!  He wrote in his journal, "The inhabitants of this state, either from fear or disaffection, almost to a man, refused to turn out...In this I was cruelly disappointed." 

Increasingly, Congress was unresponsive to Washington's repeated requests for funds to pay his army, buy supplies, or even provide winter clothing for his troops.  It seems that many of the colonies were not stepping up to support the high cost of war.  One accounting of this perilous time came from Charles Willson Peale, a portrait artist who had painted many notable people in the 1700's, including  a younger George Washington.  Peale was part of the Philadelphia militia and had recently joined Washington's army.  As he stood observing the alarming state of some of the American troops, a particularly ragged soldier approached him with only a dirty blanket covering his scratched and bloodied body.  It was only after the soldier spoke to him did Peale realize that this soldier was his brother. 

 Washington assumed Howe would try to finish off his army, then move on to capture Philadelphia.  Washington also thought that if he could make a night-crossing of the Delaware River, his army could form a rearguard to protect Philadelphia from British attack.  But, he learned that the panic-stricken Philadelphia townspeople, including the U.S. Congress, had locked their doors and fled to Baltimore.  Coincidently, Howe decided he could take Philadelphia in the spring, so he took his troops to wait out the cold winter in the comfort of New York City. 

Upon learning of Howe's departure, Washington saw an opportunity in British complacency.  Next week, a second crossing of the Delaware -- this time, to make a Christmas surprise attack on British allies, the feared German Hessian army encamped in Trenton.