[Marxism] America's Enlightenment origins

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Aug 31 07:21:53 MDT 2006

A timely reminder of America’s Enlightenment origins
By Charles Bogle
31 August 2006

Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer, 543 pages, Oxford 
University Press, 2004, $17.95

In Washington’s Crossing, published by Oxford University Press as part of 
its Pivotal Moments in American History series (series editors, David 
Hackett Fischer and James M. McPherson), Fischer describes how 
Enlightenment thinking informed the character and decision-making of George 
Washington at a critical point in the American Revolution. Fisher argues 
that although this same Enlightenment thinking molded the outlook of the 
British commanding officers and their charges, the exigencies of an 
imperialist policy resulted in brutal treatment of the colonists and 
spoliation of their property.

The author concludes by calling on his American readers to remember and 
embrace their Enlightenment origins at the present critical point in their 

The painting entitled “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” which hangs in 
the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, provides the inspiration for 
the title of Fischer’s book. The masterpiece is itself evocative of the 
Enlightenment and the revolutions it engendered. In the introduction to his 
book, Fischer writes that the artist, a German-American named Emanuel 
Leutze, undertook the painting to encourage the Europeans, who were engaged 
in the revolutions of 1848, to follow the example of the American Revolution.

Fischer responds to the postmodernist writer Ron Robin, the author of 
Scandals and Scoundrels, and Wesley Frank Craven, the author of The Legend 
of the Founding Fathers, who attack the painting for historical 
inaccuracies. While Fischer concedes that the painting contains 
errors—e.g., the Stars and Stripes it depicts was not adopted as the 
American flag until 1777, a year after Washington’s crossing of the 
Delaware—he argues that Leutze accurately captured the tension inherent in 
the event and the desperation felt by the soldiers in the boat.

Fischer also contends that the painting’s physical dimensions bespeak an 
artist who was fully conscious of the depicted event’s significance. The 
author notes that at Trenton, New Jersey, “2,400 Americans fought 1,500 
Hessians in a battle that lasted about two hours” (p. 5). These numbers 
pale when compared to the great battles of the American Civil War and the 
world wars of the twentieth century, but Fischer argues that Trenton and 
the other “little battles” (p. 5) of the American war for independence were 
“conflicts between large historical processes,” and that the artist’s 
understanding of the significance of the battle (as well as the revolution 
as a whole) as “a world event” informed his decision to paint the scene on 
a 12-foot-by-20-foot canvas.

The author posits that Leutz, from the standpoint of his place and time, 
was able to realize that the battles of the Revolutionary War represented a 
“collision between two discoveries about the human condition that were made 
in the early modern era” but had previously been thought to be 
incompatible: first, that people could employ the concepts of freedom and 
liberty to make a society work; and, second, that human beings possessed an 
innate capacity for “order and discipline.”

full: http://wsws.org/articles/2006/aug2006/wash-a31.shtml



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