After the Boston Tea Party: The Lessons From Valley Forge

Almost any Tea Party website or meeting will proclaim the movement's core opposition to "excessive" taxes and a big-spending government. A commitment to free markets usually follows. Moreover, the movement's partisans stress that these goals are not simply the political platform of the moment; in fact, they are the direct heritage of the American Revolution as personified by the patriots who hurled tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

The American Revolution, however, also provides modern generations with another and very different message about taxes and public spending and even free enterprise. The symbol of this alternative theme is a hilly site in the Pennsylvania countryside named Valley Forge. It was here in the winter of 1777-1778 that Washington's Continental Army, and the dream of liberty it defended, nearly died. The cause of the Army's crisis wasn't British bayonets. Soldiers perished from a different enemy -- hunger, cold, and disease.

Descriptions by historians of that winter of pain and despair are graphic in their detail. "In tattered garments that could no longer be called uniforms men stepped gingerly out upon the frozen mixture of snow, mud, and ice in feet swathed in strips of blanket or shod with clumsy rawhide sandals. Their bare flesh showed filthy and blue with cold or black with neglected frostbite..." The narratives penned by survivors of the encampment corroborate the extent of the Army's decline. Surgeon Alibigense Waldo wrote, "Here comes a bowl of beef soup full of dead leaves and dirt. There comes a soldier. His bare feet are seen through his worn out shoes - his legs nearly naked from the tattered remains of an only pair of stockings... his shirt hanging in strings..." Sentinels were observed to stand on their hats to keep their bandaged feet out of the snow. One report concluded, "For some days there has been little less than a famine in the camp... Indeed the distress of this Army for want of provisions is perhaps beyond anything you can conceive..." On February 2nd, 3,989 men, a third of Washington's command, were described as too scantily clad or ill shod to be fit for duty.

The combination of grossly inadequate clothing and shelter plus starvation produced rampant disease. Pneumonia became prevalent, as did amputations for frostbite. But hospital stores were equally in short supply. Medicine, food, blankets, even straw for bedding were all seriously lacking to treat the sick. Mortality soared. Of 40 hospitalized patients from one Virginia regiment, 3 survived.

A desperate General Washington pleaded to the Congress and to the leaders of the colonies for assistance lest the Army collapse and dissolve. If Washington's forces had disintegrated, the war would have been lost.

Why was the American experiment in political freedom almost extinguished in that bitter winter less than 2 years after the proud signing of the Declaration of Independence? Military factors are clearly not the explanation. Washington wasn't surrounded. The British spent the winter in Philadelphia which they had recently captured.

The answer is the limited nature of the government that sought to achieve independence -- weak in capacity and hopelessly underfinanced. The colonies were unwilling to raise taxes; their budgets remained constrained. They could neither pay their troops nor provide supplies. As a result, the men who struggled to make independence a reality froze in the snow.

Free enterprise also played its role in the struggle for a new nation based on inalienable rights. Congress could only offer 30 shillings for a wagon, driver and four horses. Contractors demanded 45. Supplies could not be transported, and the Army starved. Moreover, the British forces offered prices much higher than the impoverished Continentals, and King George's troops paid in gold. Food and fodder followed the direction of the market's invisible hand - towards Philadelphia not Valley Forge.

Valley Forge, like the Boston Tea Party, was an event with symbolic significance.

Its meaning is relevant to today's debates. A free society is not assured by a government with low taxes and budgets inadequate to face the critical tasks at hand. British armies are no longer a threat to our republic and its people. But other tasks demand public servants with skill and often with courage. When the next viral pandemic strikes, it will not be confronted by the employees of EBay or Google but by the staff of federal agencies, county health units and city fire departments. A competitive American economy depends on teachers who struggle daily in tough urban schools. Who will regulate the financial firms whose excesses have wreaked havoc on our economy -- the same private sector auditors and rating agencies who failed so outrageously in the last decade? No, the public needs its own personnel with experience and ability.

Valley Forge reminds us that people unwilling to pay for the needs of their country and community as well as for their own private interests risk losing both. There will be other harsh winters in the future, and we cannot always presume that those we depend on to support us will always prevail even if we repeatedly fail to support them.