This Christmas will mark 237 years since George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River to surprise the Hessian troops at Trenton.
That cold and snowy night, General Washington’s army embarked on a dangerous river crossing and marched nine miles to fight the enemy at Trenton.
Barely half of the men were healthy enough for battle, and hundreds collapsed along the march. A few died of exposure on the way. Many soldiers didn’t even have shoes, and left a trail of blood in the snow.
On the eve of the crossing, Washington had ordered Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The Crisis, read aloud to his men. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” it began. “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.”
Certainly none of the freezing men on Christmas night were “summer soldiers.” They had stayed to fight in conditions so miserable and hopeless that we can hardly imagine them today.
What motivated these Patriots to persevere? The answer can be found in our Declaration of Independence, written just a few months earlier in nearby Philadelphia. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” it read in part, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
These were the bold ideas for which the Patriots fought, and they are the principles that continue to define our nation. They are at the heart of what has made America exceptional.
The debt we owe to the men who crossed the Delaware on Christmas night and changed the course of the American Revolution is incalculable. And like the debt we owe to the millions of others who have sacrificed to protect our freedom throughout our history, it is one we can never repay.
We can, however, make sure we do not forget why they fought, and we can continue to preserve the ideas they gave everything to defend.
Unfortunately, we are currently doing a poor job of passing on the lessons of their sacrifice to the next generation of Americans. Today, young people are simply not learning American history.
The Department of Education’s recent National Assessment of Educational Progress survey shows how serious this problem has become. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders and 12 percent of twelfth-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.
Only one in three fourth-graders can identify the purpose of the Declaration of Independence. Less than half understand why George Washington was an important leader in American history. And most fourth-graders don’t know why the Pilgrims left England.
It’s clear that we’ve done a terrible job of helping the next generation understand our history and the great privilege of being American.
Those of us who understand the importance of our country’s past are the key to curing this historic amnesia. We must find better ways of telling the American story.
Children’s books can be a good way to introduce young people to American history. As the author of three children’s history books, I have visited classrooms across the country to share the adventures of Ellis the Elephant, my time traveling pachyderm, with four to eight year olds. Most young people I meet are eager to learn and are excited to discover our nation’s pivotal moments.
Interactive online courses, television programs like Liberty’s Kids, and educational video games like Oregon Trail can also teach critical history lessons. And of course, visits to historic sites like George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon or Independence Hall in Philadelphia are wonderful ways to inspire a love for American history.
This Christmas night, as we celebrate with family and friends, take a moment to remember the courageous soldiers who crossed the river that night in 1776. And then, take a moment to share their story with the young Americans in your life.