Every Christmas, old men and young boys stand upon the muddy banks of the Delaware River at Washington Crossing, a small nook of stone homes and farms just north of Philadelphia. Some don coal-black blankets. Others wrap their feet with wool. They come, officially, to reenact the famous crossing of General Washington and his soldiers, but the day is about more than dressing up. These men come to march with ghosts, to breathe in history with every gasp of icy air.
Growing up nearby, my pajama-clad siblings and I would beg my father, still busy stuffing wrapping paper into trash bags, to take us down to the river. The other kids, they could spend the day plopped in front of the tube with their new toys. We wanted to see Washington. Sure, we knew that the taciturn fellow who played him each year was only our friend’s papa in a peruke. Yet standing alongside those suburban warriors, smelling the smoky musket blasts, we’d close our eyes and believe that we were there. The Delaware of 1996 became the American Acheron of 1776. Trenton, across the water, no longer was a city of dormant smokestacks, but of Hessians, and lots of them. The American Revolution came alive.
Watching the scene became a favorite Costa family tradition, for a few years. Then came high school, college, and all of the tomorrows after. We all move on, pack up, and (we hope) move out. Still, the fond memories of those Christmas day adventures lingered. We can study history all we want, but the experience of living it is hard to capture. I was reminded of this a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled upon a new novel, To Try Men’s Souls, by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.
For years, my Washington bookshelf was stocked with the works of Richard Brookhiser, David Hackett Fischer, and Joseph Ellis. The Gingrich-Forstchen novel was something different. While history provided the story’s spine, it was imagination that fleshed out its pages. Washington and Thomas Paine are the lead characters, to be sure, but it is Jonathan Van Dorn, a soldier of the authors’ making, who drives the narrative. A common foot soldier, Van Dorn is part of a family, and country, divided. His brother, Allen, a loyalist, fights with the British across the icy waters. Huddled next to a fire on the Pennsylvania riverbank, Van Dorn stews, “roasting on one side, freezing on the other, as if caught somewhere between hell and some dark mystery that was building in the shadows beyond.” Page after page, as Van Dorn tells his tale, the nameless men in Emanuel Leutze’s famous oil-on-canvas burst into brighter color. You shiver with them, you get angry, you believe.
Washington, too, breaks out of his wooden-teeth persona. We no longer see a stoic perched upon his flimsy boat, but instead see the general “fuming with impatience” as he waits for the boats to make it across, snapping open his watch again and again in the deep dark of night. We see him not just as a leader, but leading, as his men stagger along frozen-solid roads towards Trenton, shaking quietly in the freezing mud. And, most interesting, we see Washington as a man of God, a believer in Divine Providence, a man who kneels in the snow and ice after his victory, head bowed, to pray.
Although well written and highly enjoyable, the book is more than an exercise in historical fiction. As I thumbed through the pages, I wondered: What are the authors really trying to say? Why retell this story now, and in this way? I called Gingrich, the former House speaker, to find out.
While writing the book, Gingrich says, he roamed along the river, pen in hand, looking for inspiration. He poured over historical volumes and letters. A former college professor, he tells me that he relished the research. The area wasn’t new to him. He grew up in Harrisburg, a few hours away.
The real draw of writing the book, he says, was diving back into Washington’s story, a life he says he finds more inspiring every day. “You have to remember that what made America unique was that every person acquired their rights from God, and, therefore, every person was the moral equal of the king,” says Gingrich. “Washington knew that if you didn’t believe in Divine Providence, then you didn’t believe in America. Their willingness to fight and die for that cause should humble us, especially when we complain about how hard politics is today, when taking on Nancy Pelosi and others. I wanted the book to be both a morale booster and a reminder.”
“Compared to the challenge of Washington and his troops, nothing that faces us today is nearly as daunting,” says Gingrich. “Nonetheless, whenever we encounter challenging times in our nation, we must remember that we’ve had problems before, and, through great courage and perseverance, we’ve solved them. Fighting for freedom mattered then, and it really matters now. I look at the Pelosi-Reid machine, and I realize just how angry Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin would have been.”
Gingrich says including God as a key part of his characters’ lives was also a crucial element of the book. “These men believed that their rights came from God and what they were doing was a moral imperative,” he says. “For them, to accept anything less than freedom was slavery. The revolution was a moral cause. Compare those beliefs to the arrogance of EPA bureaucrats today or the federal government trying to tear down a cross in the middle of the Mojave Desert, or Hillary Clinton transferring money to corrupt Third World governments. If there is any model of standing up to tyranny and fighting for your rights which we ought to remember these days, it’s the American Revolution.”
Washington, Gingrich adds, “is still one of those extraordinary figures who towers above us.” He had “courage, honor, and a willingness to sacrifice his life for America, and especially the deep sense of dignity required to be father of our country.” When he strolled around the Washington Crossing Historic Park, he says, he felt like he was “standing in the shadow of a giant.” When you step back and look at Washington’s life, “you recognize that not only did he serve as commanding general, but he made a constant effort to be a good citizen, to lead his life in a way that modern cynics find very difficult to credit.”
So who does he hopes reads his novel? For starters, President Obama, says Gingrich. “Even in the darkest moments, Washington was calm, steady, and willing to take risks. On Afghanistan and foreign policy, the president has much to learn from Washington about leadership. When you ask troops to spend 24 hours a day risking their lives for this country, they’d better be fighting for a commander-in-chief, not a consultant-in-chief.”
Then again, Gingrich fears that “it never occurs to Obama to try to be Washington. Washington believed in the uniqueness of America. His principles are antithetical to the left-wing radicalism that surrounds Obama.”
As Gingrich continues to lament the Obama administration, he pauses to remind me (and himself) that, even though times may be trying, there is hope. History, he says, can teach us lessons, but it can also sustain us in times of trouble. “I love America,” he says, “and you can’t understand America unless you immerse yourself in American history. The deliberate amnesia of the academic Left often tries to forget these great men. We must make sure we keep their stories alive.”
Indeed. On this Christmas, novel in hand, I’ll be heading back to Washington Crossing, back to the river to watch, for the first time in years, as the soccer dads jump into heavy wooden boats with oars the size of flagpoles. In our age of tea parties and big government, it’s good to remember how small and battered we were at the beginning, and how we’ve grown.
Not everyone, including Obama, can be a Washington, but we can all find hope in the story of Private Van Dorn: History, as Gingrich and Forstchen remind us, is not just about the Great Man, but about the great, unheralded men who beat on, boats against the current.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.