But the painting also reminds us that size is not a measure of significance. The little battles of the American Revolution were conflicts between large historical processes, and the artist knew well what was at stake. He understood better than many Americans that their Revolution was truly a world event. We shall see that Washington's Crossing and the events that followed had a surprising impact, not only in America but in Britain and Germany and throughout the world.
Emanuel Leutze also understood that something more was at issue in this event. The small battles near the Delaware were a collision between two discoveries about the human condition that were made in the early modern era. One of them was the discovery that people could organize a society on the basis of liberty and freedom, and could actually make it work. The ideas themselves were not new in the world, but for the first time, entire social and political systems were constructed primarily on that foundation.
Another new discovery was about the capacity of human beings for order and discipline. For many millennia, people had been made to serve others, but this was something more than that. It was an invention of new methods by which people could be trained to engage their will and creativity in the service of another: by drill and ritual, reward and punishment, persuasion and belief. Further, they could be trained to do so not as slaves or servants or robots, but in an active and willing way.
These two discoveries began as altruisms, and developed rapidly in the age of the Enlightenment, not only in Europe and America but in Ch'ing China and Mughal India and around the world. Together they define a central tension in our modern condition, more so than new technology or growing wealth. As ideas they were not opposites, but they were often opposed, and they collided in the American Revolution. In 1776, a new American army of free men fought two modern European armies of order and discipline. When the conflict began in earnest, during the late summer and fall of 1776, the forces of order won most of the major battles, but an army of free men won the winter campaign that followed. They did so not by imitating a European army of order, a profound error in historical interpretations of the War of Independence, but by developing the strengths of an open system in a more disciplined way.
Emanuel Leutze's painting shows only one side of this great struggle, but the artist clearly understood what it was about. He represented something of its nature in his image of George Washington and the men who soldiered with him. The more we learn about Washington, the greater his contribution becomes, in developing a new idea of leadership during the American Revolution. Emanuel Leutze brings it out in a tension between Washington and the other men in the boat. We see them in their diversity and their stubborn autonomy. These men lived the rights they were defending, often to the fury of their commander-in-chief. The painting gives us some sense of the complex relations that they had with one another, and also with their leader. To study them with their general is to understand what George Washington meant when he wrote, "A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove." All of these things were beginning to happen on Christmas night in 1776, when George Washington crossed the Delaware. Thereby hangs a tale.