Monthly Archives: December 2011

“Generalissimo” Washington?

A post at American Creation directs our attention to some remarks on George Washington by the late Murray Rothbard, who lambasted the commander of the Continental Army for his attempts to “crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the American forces.”

Rothbard was correct in noting that when Washington arrived to take command of the Continental Army, it was a relatively undisciplined and egalitarian organization, at least by the standards of most eighteenth-century armies.  He was also correct that Washington wanted to conform the army more closely to contemporary European models.  Rothbard argued that these measures were unwarranted and imperious:

To introduce a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank. As one observer phrased it: “New lords, new laws. … The strictest government is taking place, and great distinction is made between officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep it.” Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.

At least as important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers considerably higher than that of the rank and file.

In addition to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from 39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.

Distinctions of rank, uniformity of appearance, differentials in pay, the employment of coercion.  I don’t know about you, but to me this sounds like…an army.

The “yeah, so?” factor seems to be a recurring issue in libertarian-oriented historical polemics.  I’m reminded of Thomas DiLorenzo’s work on Lincoln.  There’s nothing really new or useful added to the mix in terms of what we know about the past.  The only original ingredient is the author’s opinion that the developments in question were for the worst.  It’s a sort of inverse Whig interpretation of history, a narrative of regression away from freedom and toward authoritarianism.

Rothbard was of the opinion that Washington should have left well enough alone and allowed the Americans to fight a people’s partisan war, since “they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.”  And yet there was a conflict between the roles of partisan warrior and civilian farmer.  We know this because the militia who fought without joining the regular Continental Army tried to balance these roles, and their inability to be in two places at once—embodied in the field and back at their homes—was one of the most important limitations on their effectiveness.

Could a people’s partisan army have won the war on its own?  Some contemporaries thought so, at least at first; Gen. Charles Lee, one of the army’s most controversial officers, advocated something like this approach.  But as time passed, it became increasingly apparent to many observers that a regular, embodied force was the critical component of the American war effort.  Undisciplined militiamen were indeed capable of achieving remarkable victories, but only under the proper conditions, when factors like terrain, the tactical situation, and timing coalesced in their favor (i.e., the retreat from Concord and King’s Mountain).  Irregular partisans also made critical contributions outside the bounds of large-scale engagements, especially in the South, where they cut up small enemy detachments and suppressed the Tories on whom the British depended for support.  But as Gen. Nathanael Greene pointed out, “the salvation of this Country don’t depend upon little strokes…Partizan strokes in war are like the garnish of a table, they give splendor to the Army…but they afford no substantial national security.”

Rothbard, I think, made the same mistake which contemporary advocates of a home-grown American genius for partisan warfare made.  The hardy frontier riflemen who could pick off British soldiers from a vast distance and then vanish into the woods played an indispensable part in the American victory, but they didn’t do so alone.  More importantly, they weren’t typical of the American population.  Revolutionary America needed a regular army to win the war, and that army had to be molded into a force capable of going multiple rounds with the British, something Washington and the other Continental commanders came to realize.  The measures they took to bring this about may have been restrictive and authoritarian, but if you value individualism above all else, then it’s unlikely that any hardened fighting force is going to be congenial to you.

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Re-crossing the Delaware

Mort Kunstler unveiled his newest painting last night at the New York Historical Society.  It depicts Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in a much grittier, more realistic fashion than Leutze’s classic canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  You can get a look at the painting by clicking here.

I love it.  It’s aesthetically pleasing, but it doesn’t sanitize the harsh reality of the soldiers’ situation—these guys are cold and wet.  The painting also conveys Washington’s heroic stature without sacrificing the credible naturalism that Leutze tossed out the window.  If you ask me, Kunstler’s depiction does more credit to the bravery and determination it took to launch the attack on Trenton, because it shows us ordinary men overcoming miserable conditions.

Now, when do we get to buy prints?

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Unless you’re a Hessian.

Passage of the Delaware, by Thomas Sully (1819). Now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

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Artifacts stolen from Battles for Chattanooga Museum

Security cameras got the whole thing on video.  Have a look and see if you recognize this creep.  There’s a reward offered for information.  We’ve seen far too many examples of this sort of thing in the past year, and potential thieves need to learn that they can’t steal from museums and archives and expect to get away with it.

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Hudson Valley sites try to stay afloat

More bleak news about the travails of trying to manage a cultural attraction while the economy’s in the toilet.

When I was an intern, I spent a fair amount of time manning a cash register in a museum lobby.  Some visitors used to complain about admission costs (a paltry four or five bucks per adult back in those days), remarking that we must have been glad we such a nice little cash cow going.  They were so wrong it wasn’t even funny.  In many museums, admissions revenue rarely even comes close to meeting operating expenses.  Indeed, in many cases, it doesn’t even cover basic maintenance costs.  Keep that in mind the next time you feel like griping to the guy at the ticket counter.

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Peddling crap and frivolity pays big dividends for History Channel

You know that old saying about how nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public’s intelligence?

Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.

That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.…

Its biggest show for the last two years has been “Pawn Stars,” about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, “Cajun Pawn Stars.” But the channel is also considering shows that may seem suited for TNT or even ESPN, like a “Hatfields and McCoys” mini-series and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.

History has been able to declare its “best year ever” for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.

For that, we can thank Nancy Dubuc, The History Channel‘s general manager.  As you might recall, she’s the same person who had the grapes to refer to shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars as “vérité documentaries on people doing history today.”  There’s a sense in which that’s true, but it’s the same sense in which Uwe Boll is a bold iconoclast on the cutting edge of modern cinema.

“We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men,” said [Dubuc’s] boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A + E Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, “we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future.”

All this time, “upscale men” have been the ones watching shows like Swamp People.  I can see them now, all those upwardly mobile professionals coming home after a long day in their corner offices, a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker in hand, sitting back to enjoy a good cigar and a snifter of brandy while watching this:

So what can we look forward to in the future?

Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes “Top Shot” and “Big Shrimpin’ ” for History, has another show on the way called “Full Metal Jousting,” a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Mr. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: “Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break.”

“They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different,” he said.

Note to self: Come up with “loud, promotable, and different” idea for TV show, pitch it to The History Channel, bask in riches and glory.

Next year they’re rolling out (I’m not making this up) a mini-series about the Hatfields and the McCoys.  If they can handle this difficult aspect of Appalachian history with the same sophistication and sensitivity so characteristic of Swamp People and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, then we’re in for a real treat.

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Re-fighting the Battle of Princeton

There’s a dispute going on in Princeton, NJ over a parcel of land that may or may not be a critical piece of the Jan. 3, 1777 battlefield.  Enlisted to speak for those wishing to build on the site is Dr. Mark Peterson, who argues that the case is not as clear-cut as opponents of the project suggest.  For all I know, he may be right about that.

I do, however, think he’s wrong when he invokes precedent as a guide to current behavior:

 Dr. Peterson suggested there are other ways to memorialize historic events, in addition to preserving the land from development. He pointed to several sites that were important in the Revolutionary War, but that have since been developed and do not reflect the way they looked in the 18th century.

In Lexington, Mass., where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, the bodies of the American militiamen who died were buried in cemeteries scattered around the area, he said. But many years later, the bodies were disinterred and reburied next to a monument that was placed on the site.

A plaque at Cambridge Common, which also figured in the Revolutionary War and which was the site where Gen. Washington took command of the Continental Army, is part of Harvard Square. Land has not always been set aside as “sacred ground,” Dr. Peterson said.

This reminds me of an argument I used to hear in support of the Gettysburg casino.  There’s plenty of schlock around the battlefield already (as this line of reasoning went) so it makes little sense to freak out over a single gambling resort.  I’ve never found this persuasive.  One could just as easily make the same argument about natural resources: People used to clear-cut forests with merry abandon and shoot down every bison in sight, so what’s the big deal?

Lousy stewardship of historic ground in the past shouldn’t be a license for us to proceed carelessly today.  If anything, it should serve as a cautionary tale.

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