Tag Archives: George Washington

Better living through willful ignorance

One of the things you didn’t do during the American Revolution was question George Washington’s integrity.  You could criticize his judgment, but not his character.

Once he assumed the presidency, of course, Washington’s character did become a target.  Serious differences about the direction the new nation should take emerged among the generation of men who made the Revolution, and these differences were the genesis of the first American political parties.  Despite Washington’s wish to appear above the fray, he ended up choosing a side, and that side was the one in favor of a stronger central government, a more modern financial system, and commercial relations with England.  Washington aligned himself with Hamilton and the other Federalists, and in so doing he opened himself to criticism from Jefferson, Madison, and their colleagues who thought this vision of America threatened the Revolution’s legacy.

Washington by Gilbert Stuart, via Wikimedia Commons

During the war Washington had been the embodiment of virtue, but to the Republicans it now seemed he was supporting men and measures that were undermining everything his generation worked to build.  Yet he was still George Washington. Perhaps this contradiction explains a conviction that appears in Jefferson’s writings from this period.  If you relied solely on Jefferson’s appraisal of Washington, you’d come away with the impression that the Father of his Country was basically a dupe.  For a time, Jefferson thought Washington supported Hamilton and the Federalists because he was being misled and deceived.  By relying on Hamilton to shape financial policy, Washington was supposedly letting himself be dragged along by a scoundrel, simply because he didn’t know enough about running the country to rely on his own judgment.

Washington was a shrewder customer than Jefferson gave him credit for.  How could somebody who worked with Washington misread him so badly?  I’ve started to suspect that part of the explanation is psychological.  During his second term, Washington became fair game for every sort of outlandish, slanderous charge imaginable—monarchism, Anglophilia, even treason during the war.  But other observers remembered Washington as America’s Cincinnatus while simultaneously seeing that he was taking the country down a path they believed to be wrong.  How to reconcile his virtue and his supposed lack of prudence?  The explanation had to be that Washington was in the dark, and therefore at the mercy of the unsavory characters who had his ear.

If this story sounds a little familiar, it should.  This was the same narrative Americans had been telling themselves a couple of decades before, except at that point it had been the King of England, rather than Washington, who was the dupe.  Americans believed that a plot was underway to enslave them, and they knew that English politicians and some of the king’s advisors were in on it.  But at first they were reluctant to implicate the king himself.  They assured themselves that his ministers were misleading him, and that if they could get the truth about America’s plight to the throne, then he would alleviate their situation.  Eventually they learned that he wasn’t as in the dark as they’d thought, and that in fact he wanted his subjects to submit to the same policies that they found oppressive. For many colonists this discovery was a profound disillusionment, and it was a crucial step in their eventual decision to break from England completely, a process Pauline Maier outlines in her study of the evolution of America’s protest movement.

It’s a richly ironic situation.  By psychologically preserving Washington’s integrity, Jefferson had to assume that he was fundamentally ignorant.  And in so doing, he recapitulated a pattern Americans had first applied to the same king against whom Washington led a revolution.

2 Comments

Filed under American Revolution

Evaluating presidents across the pond

The Jacksonian America blog directs our attention to a British ranking of American presidents, which is well worth a look.  Washington stands at number three, so apparently there are no hard feelings.

I find it interesting that Jackson made it into the top ten.  I would’ve assumed that Old Hickory would represent the stereotypical America imagined and feared by Europeans—a product of the frontier, brash, violent, rough around the edges.  (Plus there’s that whole New Orleans business.)  Perhaps a commitment to populism, like charity, shall cover the multitude of sins.

Leave a comment

Filed under History and Memory

Great men on the couch

Despite my fondness for history, I don’t read many biographies.  One of the reasons is that there are some tendencies of modern biographers that I find irritating.

The childhoods of men like Washington and Lincoln are obviously not as well documented as their public lives.  The data consists of a disjointed collection of anecdotes and reminiscences, strung together loosely by dates culled from family Bibles and baptismal records. Biographers often strain too hard to make something meaningful of this small pile of ingredients, seizing on minor incidents as harbingers of lifelong behavioral patterns.  (“This determination to find his lost puppy was the first indication of the tenacity that would, decades later, serve him so well on the battlefield.”)  If a subject’s early years are sparsely documented, then just be upfront about it.  There’s no need to fill in the gaps with foreshadowing.

Almost as common is a tendency to engage in superficial psychoanalysis, digging into the subject’s early experiences and relationships to identify the sources of later personality traits.  Hence Lincoln’s disdain for his father helped to fuel his ambition, or Washington’s domineering mother engendered a reactionary desire for control and independence.

Historians are not psychoanalysts.  We’re trained to interpret records within the context of the past, not unlock the inner workings of the human mind.  In fact, you can just as often explain seemingly aberrant characteristics using good old historical context, without resorting to psychological speculation.  Sure, Washington liked control and independence, but what eighteenth-century Virginia gentleman, raised in a hierarchical society in which status came from obligations owed by others and from ownership of slaves, didn’t want to be the master of his own fate?  Even when psychologists themselves try to use their discipline to figure out what makes historical figures tick, the results are sometimes less than impressive. (Recall the gay Lincoln fiasco of not long ago.)

It’s perfectly legitimate to incorporate the insights of psychology when writing biography, but if historians are going to do so, they should tread with care, remembering that they’re venturing into foreign territory.

Leave a comment

Filed under Historiography

Everything I need to know about American history, I learned from anti-Catholic conspiracy theories

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you THE TRUTH AT LAST!

Tobias Lear, personal secretary to George Washington, was an assassin in the employ of the nefarious Jesuit Order who poisoned the Father of our Country, and Thomas Jefferson was probably in on it!

As President, Jefferson used his office to promote Jesuit infiltration of the United States!

George III was a Jesuit puppet, and his invasion of the colonies to suppress the rebellion was in reality the result of a scheme to eradicate Protestantism!

Those countless hours I spent as a grad student, trying to learn what made the Revolution tick…and it was all for naught.  All for naught.

5 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

New light on the flag’s origins

…courtesy of America’s Finest News Source.  The Washington quote is the high point.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution

Monmouth Court House in context

One of the most complicated and controversial battles of the Revolutionary War took place at Monmouth Court House, NJ on June 28, 1778.  The war had just changed fundamentally, since France’s entry as a belligerent forced the British to contract their commitment in the colonies.  This meant, among other things, abandoning Philadelphia, which they had captured the previous autumn.  The British march away from the rebel capital presented Washington with an opportunity to inflict some damage on his enemy’s force as it crossed New Jersey.  The ensuing engagement demonstrated that the Continental Army, so often defeated in the war’s previous two years, had become a formidable fighting machine.  This battle and the events surrounding it are the subject of Monmouth Court House: The Battle that Made the American Army, by Joseph G. Bilby and Katherine Bilby Jenkins, released this summer by Westholme Publishing.  It is a book much wider ins cope than its title suggests.

The Revolution in New Jersey was a civil war, and the course of that civil war depended greatly on the fortunes of the regular armies.  The Tory ascendancy in of 1776 in New Jersey proved relatively brief.  British and Hessian rapacity alienated many civilians, Washington’s enterprising attacks at Trenton and Princeton demonstrated that his army was not subdued, and an active local militia proved that while New Jersey was occupied, it remained unpacified. Fighting in the state continued through 1777, as both sides skirmished and foraged throughout the countryside.

The residents of Monmouth County experienced the effects of this fighting firsthand, both before and after the climactic battle that erupted among their homes in the summer of 1778.  They also participated, often as militia or members of impromptu bands that coalesced in response to local military, social, or religious conditions.  Organized Loyalists benefited from the presence of British regulars, attacking Whigs and confiscating their goods, but when control of New Jersey shifted to the Patriots, the tables were turned and Loyalists suffered accordingly.  Some Tories joined armed bands of outliers, like the one led by an ex-slave that terrorized local Whigs from a base at Sandy Hook.  Legal and extralegal Patriot groups targeted these Tories and those suspected of sympathizing with them, resulting in a kind of see-saw partisan conflict in which each side persecuted the other while operating in the shadow of whichever occupying force was most prominent at that particular time.  Bilby and Jenkins use local records and correspondence to illuminate the inner workings of this struggle within Monmouth County.

The fortunes of the regular armies shifted back and forth, also.  By the summer of 1778 the Continental Army was a matured fighting force.  While the British had occupied Philadelphia, the Americans spent their winter at Valley Forge training under the tutelage of the colorful Prussian drillmaster Baron von Steuben.  The British abandonment of Philadelphia, supervised by Sir Henry Clinton, was a necessary consequence of France’s entry into the war, but it meant marching across dusty roads in intense heat, exposed to an enemy more proficient at making battle than it had ever been.

Some of Washington’s subordinates urged their commander to use the British withdrawal march as an opportunity to attack.  One who disagreed was General Charles Lee, a onetime veteran of the British Army who was also a critic of his commander and until recently a prisoner of war; while in captivity his behavior was sufficiently questionable as to bring his loyalty to the American cause into doubt.  Lee warned that the army was not prepared for an all-out engagement, and recommended the use of small-scale harassment.  Washington determined to divide his force and send a portion of it against the British flank and rear, seeking an opportunity to harass the enemy’s army and perhaps inflict serious damage.  Once it became clear that this force would be considerable in size, Lee insisted that his seniority entitled him to command it.  Washington relented, allowing Lee to take charge of a detachment faced with a task that he had vocally opposed.  According to Bilby and Jenkins, Lee’s unfamiliarity with the troops under his command and with the terrain over which he would have to fight caused much of the confusion that followed.

When the two armies caught up with each other along the fields, marshes, and ravines near Monmouth Court House on June 28, the British counter-attacked.  Faced with ever-increasing numbers of British troops, American units began to withdraw from the field, and shortly thereafter Lee himself ordered a general withdrawal and tried to establish a defensive position to the rear.  Washington arrived on the field surprised to find his troops retreating; encountering a confused and flustered Lee, he failed to secure a satisfactory answer as to why the withdrawal was taking place.  Washington himself then took command of the army and oversaw the establishment of new defensive positions along elevated ground, which the British found difficult to crack.  After a two-hour artillery duel and a number of localized American attacks, the British completed their withdrawal from the battlefield, marching away to Sandy Hook for embarkation to New York that evening.  The Americans had demonstrated their ability to stand toe-to-toe with British regulars in formal combat.

Still, the initial American withdrawal at Monmouth Court House ended the Revolutionary career of Charles Lee.  The combative general insisted on a court-martial to clear his name and dashed off a series of insulting messages to Washington, which did little to help his cause.  The American commander obliged Lee’s wish for an inquiry, which found Lee guilty of disobedience for failure to attack the British, conducting an improper retreat, and disrespect to his commander. Suspended from command for a year, Lee continued his crusade to vindicate his reputation, eventually getting himself removed from the army altogether.  Bilby and Jenkins find Lee largely responsible for his own misfortunes.  While the court-martial leveled accusations against Lee that were partly untrue (Washington had not ordered him to bring on a general engagement, despite the accusations of some of Lee’s enemies), and while his conduct of the defense following the confused retreat was admirable, the initial American withdrawal itself was, they argue, largely the result of Lee’s own ill-preparedness and his poor initiation of the battle.  Likewise, the collapse of his military career was essentially his own fault, attributable to his belligerent behavior after the battle.

If Lee’s reputation suffered as a result of Monmouth, though, the Continental Army had vindicated itself after the embarrassing defeats of 1776 and 1777 by facing the British in a pitched battle.  Over the next century, as Americans turned to the Revolution as a symbol of national unity and spirit, the battle and the field found their own places in American memory.  The most prominent figure in the memory of Monmouth was (and remains) Molly Pitcher, a campfollower who supposedly helped man one of the artillery pieces.  Bilby and Jenkins find that the Molly Pitcher legend, while embellished over time, likely has a basis in fact; it appears in some later participant accounts, and a likely candidate can be found in surviving records and recollections. The book concludes with a description of efforts to commemorate and preserve the battlefield, which is now a state park.

If all this sounds like more than a discussion of a battle, it is.  The authors’ intention is to “tell the story of the Battle of Monmouth Court House in a holistic manner” (x).  As such, much of the book is more concerned with the battle’s context than with the actual clash near Monmouth, delving into the course of the war in the Mid-Atlantic, its effects on the community, the organization and composition of the opposing armies, and eighteenth-century weapons and tactics.  Much of this background material will already be familiar to students of the Revolution, but it does place the battle itself in a larger perspective.

As one of the most complicated and controversial engagements of the war, Monmouth seems ripe for the sort of painstaking critique of command decisions that characterize many battle studies, and some readers will probably find the authors’ reluctance to engage in such minute dissection frustrating.  Still, this is a useful and enlightening account, one that clearly presents the story of Monmouth and puts that story within its proper place. It will be of interest to any reader interested in the Revolution or American military history.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography

Two bestselling authors

…have new books out on the American Revolution, and they’re completely different.

Bernard Cornwell’s latest is The Fort, his second novel set during the War for Independence.  It’s about the Penobscot Expedition, of all things.  I’ve never read Cornwell, but I find it intriguing that he’d focus on an obscure subject like this.

Second, Ron Chernow has tackled the formidable job of a one-volume life of Washington.  It’ll be interesting to see what place this bio finds on the shelf of Washington books.  There are quite a few substantial, fairly recent, and still-popular one-volume lives of Washington out there—Willard Sterne Randall‘s is still in a lot of stores, and so is the acclaimed abridgment of James Thomas Flexner‘s work.  Oxford brought out a new printing of John Ferling’s The First of Men earlier this year, too.  Of course, Chernow’s got a built-in readership from his life of Hamilton, which was very well received, so that momentum may bump this book to the top of the stack of Washington bios as far as most readers of the next decade or so will be concerned.  We’ll see what happens.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Revolution, Historiography