Christmas, 1776.

Summer had begun with strong declarations of noble ideals, but by winter the cause of liberty seemed to be at low ebb. Having suffered defeat after defeat, many had all but given up hope. It looked like freedom would succumb yet again, as it had throughout history, to the forces of authoritarianism and tyranny.

Then, on Christmas Day, 1776, a small band of colonial forces under the command of Gen. George Washington, having retreated all the way from New York, again crossed the Delaware River and brought battle at Trenton, New Jersey. Washington not only won the battle but regained the initiative and turned the war in the patriots’ favor. One week later, Washington defeated the British at Princeton and forced the enemy to withdraw, preventing its advance on Philadelphia, seat of the Continental Congress.

When it announced itself to the world in 1776, the United States of America was little more than an alliance of 13 small colonies on a barren continent, thousands of miles from their ancestral homeland, surrounded by hostile powers.

Now, well over two centuries after winning independence from the British Empire, America is the freest, wealthiest, most powerful nation on Earth. Along the way it established sovereign nationhood, settled a continent and more and brought unprecedented prosperity to its citizens. It survived a devastating Civil War that threatened its very life, abolished slavery and raised up the emancipated to be citizens equal to their one-time masters. It triumphed in two world wars fought on foreign soil and a decades-long struggle against worldwide communism that, 20 years ago, led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union.

What accounts for this monumental success? The founding of the United States was indeed revolutionary. But not in the sense of replacing one set of rulers with another, or overthrowing the institutions of society.

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