“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.


Filed under American Revolution

4 responses to ““Generalissimo” Washington?

  1. mathias

    “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.”

    How does a statist military mitigate this problem? You still can’t be in two places at the same time…

    “It’s a sort of inverse Whig interpretation of history, a narrative of regression away from freedom and toward authoritarianism.”

    How so? We are talking here about a brief episode, not the totality of history. Rothbard rejected this view, your accusation is simply pointless.

    • Michael Lynch

      You’ve misunderstood me. I’m not saying that a regular army could be in two places at once. I’m saying that regulars remained embodied in the field for longer periods, whereas militiamen in the Revolution remained embodied for shorter periods and were more prone to pack up and head for home when it suited them. Commanders didn’t have to spend as much time worrying about regular units leaving in the middle of a campaign because their terms of enlistment became longer.

      Nor am I saying that Rothbard is talking about the “totality of history.” I’m merely saying that thinkers of his persuasion have a tendency to see episodes of declension toward statism when they look at history. I’m not saying that they’re the only ones to do so, or that they’re always wrong when the do so, just that it happens. It’s much more common in libertarian rhetoric about the Civil War, but seeing Rothbard use it in reference to the Revolution was interesting.

      • mathias

        Thanks for your answer. I can see how someone unfamiliar with Rothbard’s work could get this impression, I just wanted to clarify that Rothbard was an optimist with no such declension toward statism.

        You claim the militiamen couldn’t have won the revolution, but we actually don’t know this for sure as we can’t repeat history to see what would have happened. It’s your (and others) words against Rothbard’s.

        Also I think it’s important to realize that strictly speaking, winning the revolutionary war wasn’t the objective (That was only a mean to an end). The objective was to live “in liberty” with a “just government” and the institutionalizing of a tax payed army constituted a threat to this, this is why Rothbard took issue with it. This important fact is hidden away in your rhetoric.

        Also, the conflict you mentioned, ie that one cannot be in two places at the same time, isn’t really solved with an army that has coercive power. Someone still has to take care of the farm work. The commanders may not had to worry about individuals in regular units acting according to their own will and you may find this welcoming – and that’s certainly legitimate from the short sighted perspective of the commander, but it doesn’t appropriately factor in why the war was fought in the first place.

        On a side note: I don’t understand why you felt it necessary to make an ad hominem attack against Charles Lee. Rothbard made a convincing case for his vindication in the book you were indirectly quoting from (It’s from Part IV of “Conceived in Liberty”) .

        • Michael Lynch

          Militiamen performed very well in some engagements and disastrously in others. Few of the significant battles were waged and won by militia alone. Would the British have lost a war fought solely against irregulars? Perhaps, but such a war would have taken a great deal longer, and almost certainly would have been a good deal uglier.

          I also think it’s hard to make a case that the army and the need to collect funds to suppor it posed a critical threat to liberty given that Congress had so much trouble collecting those funds in the first place. The national government had few coercive mechanisms at its disposal. That was why the army remained so poorly supplied and paid. If it posed a threat to liberty, the threat must have remained mostly theoretical, because funds from the states and supplies from the citizens were so rarely forthcoming.

          Finally, I’m not out to disparage Lee’s character. I simply think he overstated the usefulness of partisan militia.

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