A call to generations, from generations past

At times in President Obama’s inaugural speech, he seemed to be addressing himself directly to Generation X — now, the new leadership of this country — and the Millennial Generation — the rising workers and doers of America.

Most interestingly, he addressed one of the largest concerns of his fellow members of Generation X — that our generation will fare worse than our parents’.

Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land — a nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

This has been a concern of my generations’ since I was in college almost 20 years ago. But in These Times, with trouble abroad and at home, there are greater concerns than our long-held worry about own prosperity and future retirement (though this is no less real or less important).

President Obama’s call to our nation’s generations for a new era of responsibility is the message America needs.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America — they will be met.

As members of Generation X, the burden to lead will be on our shoulders, though, if history is any indicator, the bulk of the credit and praise will fall not to the leaders from our generation (with the notable and correct exception of our presidents).

Rather, the rewards and praise will go to those industrious Millennials, who will work and carry out the plans our generation designs. No, our reward will be in a cranky and stable, if not overly prosperous, old age. With the way things are, and the way things have been, that sounds OK with me.

And though this may be our humble lot, a rallying cry can produce hope, even among my fellow cynics. Indeed, a call to action penned by the man who has been called America’s first blogger, Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, helped rally troops to action and eventual victory and redoubled the faith of a weary and doubtful new nation. It made sense that Obama paid homage to this author from a like-minded generation.

Toward the end of Obama’s speech, the new President linked us back to then-General Washington’s days leading the Continental Army, struggling to survive an even harsher winter in the early days of our War for Independence. The new President quoted from Thomas Paine’s American Crisis — if you remember it from Social Studies class, Paine’s pre-Christmas message began with the famous lines:

These are times that try men’s souls; the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands 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: ’Tis dearness only that gives every thing its value.

Paine’s pamphlet was composed and read to Washington’s troops before the famous crossing of the ice-choked Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 and launched Washington’s “most tactically brillant operation of the war” (Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency, © 2004, p. 97) to surprise British troops camped in Trenton, N.J.

So in our own trying winter, it was all too appropriate for Barack Obama to echo Paine’s words and Washington’s resolve in Obama’s first speech as President:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world, that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Obama’s connection with Washington goes deeper than this quoting of a famous scene and a rousing passage. Washington’s generation (and Paine’s, too), as noted in Strauss & Howe’s work on the cyclical nature of generations, shares the Nomad/Reactive tag and characteristics with Obama’s Generation X — one of hands-on, pragmatic leadership in middle age, which followed their youthful risk-taking.

I’m reading Joseph Ellis’ brief biography of Washington, and there perhaps was no more pragmatic leader than George Washington — Ellis points out that “a central lesson of his life — survive and you shall suceed — seemed to be holding true in the months after Valley Forge (in 1778).” This survival instinct —and the knack for prospering afterward —was true of Washington’s generation, and it hopefully will hold true of my own generation, too.

Interestingly, this pragmatism pops up in Truman and Eisenhower, who, according to Strauss & Howe, belong to a similar Nomad/Reactive archetype as leaders from the Lost Generation.

An interactive application at the New York Times’ site showed Obama used the word “generation” seven times, tied with “world” for the fifth most frequently used word in his speech, behind “nation” (taking the most-used slot with 15 appearances in his speech), “America,” “people,” and “work.”

His message to Generation X’ers and to Millennials, indeed to all Americans, gives hope and acts as a call to work and to action, “so it must be with this generation of Americans.”

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment – a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

UPDATE: Jan. 21, 2009, 8:09 p.m.:

Wow, who knew the Internet could contain conflicting facts?

Though there seems to be a general consensus that Thomas Paine penned his first American Crisis pamphlet in December 1776 (the one that Obama quoted, and which begins with the famous “these are the times that try men’s souls”), I’ve seen conflicting Web sources about when General Washington ordered it read to his troops. Some sources say it was read before the Delaware River crossing to attack Trenton on Christmas 1776 and other sources claimed it was read one year later at Valley Forge during the winter of 1777-78.

So what gives? At first I was concerned that even the new President couldn’t reconcile this. His reference to the “year of America’s birth” obviously points to the 1776 Crossing of the Delaware, as does his mention of “on the shores of an icy river.” Obama also noted that “the snow was stained with blood.” This imagery is frequently associated with Valley Forge, where, as Joseph Ellis wrote, Washington himself commented his own troops’ “Marches might be traced by the Blood from their feet.” Many of Washington’s troops went shoeless that winter.

However, I found a page (granted, its Wikipedia, but the source within the entry seemed solid) that noted that after the Delaware crossing and during the march to Trenton in 1776, “Many of the troops did not have boots, so they were forced to wear rags around their feet. Some of the men’s feet bled, turning the snow to a dark red.”

OK, so far, so good. All signs point to December 1776 and the Delaware Crossing. But one last sentence from this part of Obama’s speech had me disappointingly thinking “gotcha.”

Obama said in his speech “The capital was abandoned,” which seemed a clear reference to the British capture of Philadelphia (the then-capital) in 1777, prior to the Continental Army’s encampment at Valley Forge.

However, to the rescue comes historian David McCullough, who Obama and his speechwriting team consulted for the inaugural address.

In McCullough’s book 1776, he writes that in December 1776, less than two weeks before the Delaware Crossing…

“The same day as [General] Lee’s capture Washington learned that Congress had adjourned in order to move to a safer location at Baltimore. It was abandoning Philadelphia for the first time since convening there for the First Continental Congress in 1774.”

(McCullough, 1776, © 2005, pp. 266-267)

I scanned that part of McCullough’s book and found nothing about Paine’s pamphlet being read, so I’m starting to worry that the story of reading Paine’s words to the troops is more legend than history.

But there you have it. Call me crazy, but I’m going with the Pulitzer Prize-winning McCullough (sorry, HuffPo). The reference in Obama’s speech is to the Delaware Crossing in 1776, not Valley Forge.

One more point: What can be fairly certain is that morale was low at both moments in history, so Obama’s evoking downtrodden and freezing troops overcoming the odds holds true for both 1776 and 1777-78. Ditto for the tested and sinking resolve of the citizens of a new nation during both winters. Indeed, Obama could safely say that the days before the Delaware Crossing in 1776 and during the harsh Valley Forge winter of 1777-78, qualified as “a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt.”

In either case, these words, inspiration to the downtrodden and the doubtful (and today’s cynics), contain a message our generation can heed, as a previous generation did more than two centuries ago.


6 Comments on “A call to generations, from generations past”

  1. jenx67 says:

    How have I been missing your blog?????

  2. KAC says:

    Hot damn, you are so well written! I aspire to reach your level. Maybe if I “take some more lithium or have a Diet Coke, some caffeine might get [me] out of this slump.”
    Also, how do you link to a site while leaving a comment?
    Sigh. I have so much to learn…

  3. The Icepick says:

    JenX: Thanks for the comment and for the post on your blog. Appreciate the plug. I enjoy your blog, too — both your writing and your promotion of other Gen X bloggers.

    KAC: I think you figured it out. Now I have to return some videotapes.

  4. Wek says:

    I’m cool with letting the Millenials take the credit. Us Xers never did well in the limelight anyhow.

  5. The Icepick says:

    True that, Wek. For one, there’s just so many more of them than there are of us. And, I’ve always thought we were the kind of people who did well behind-the-scenes — we’re perhaps more the directors and less the actors.

    If you’re a Strauss & Howe guy, this is more or less how it goes with these two generational types — think Eisenhower (though he got plenty of credit, too, but work with me here) and the soldiers that served under him — those were the GI’s that comprised Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. Or put it another way: though Ike got his credit (and the presidency), his generation of leaders and generals were not named the “Greatest Generation” — it was the men and women of the next youngest age-bracket.

    Ike and Truman, perhaps saddled with the Hemingway moniker, were the Lost Generation, and Strauss & Howe’s research showed moralizing elders wringing their hands and looking down on them in their youth — sounds familiar, no? From re-reading some of Strauss & Howe’s stuff, this was an earlier generation of latchkey kids, and many of them went to work as kids, becoming newsies, messengers, and “ten-hours-a-day coal miners.”

    From their 1991 book Generations: “… the Lost never expected that anyone would look to them for greatness or goodness. All they asked was the chance to remind their elders and juniors how life really worked, and the opportunity to do what needed doing — quickly, effectively — when nobody else would stoop to the task. Meanwhile, they were content to bear the blame so long as public-spirited crusaders kept their distance. They would make their own amends for their own shortcomings.” (p. 251)

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