Wednesday, March 25, 2015

What We're Reading: Washington's Revolution

Washington’s Revolution:
The Making of America’s First Leader
by Robert Middlekauff

It seems almost quaint these days to read a book on George Washington. We live in a time of great cynicism about the character of our political leaders, a time when we question their honesty, their commitment to common rather than narrow selfish interests, and their ability to lead. That disillusionment has eroded, in turn, our trust in historical myths with which we grew up, the stories of our values and our founding as a nation that gave generations of young Americans a special sense of the exceptional nature of their country and of their own personal destiny in the world. America, we grew up believing, was committed to expanding the empire of liberty and equal opportunity, and those ideals guided its domestic politics and motivated its actions on the world stage.

Our Founding Fathers have not fared well as we have cast a colder eye on our national history. The Civil Rights movement highlighted the long history of racism in America, and recent scholarship on the history of slavery has made us increasingly aware of the centrality of slavery to American economic prosperity and the enormity of slavery as a blot on our national history. Revered fathers of American liberty, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, were all slaveholders. Apologists talk of the “contradiction;” critics speak of “hypocrisy” and the unholy compact that was made with slavery in order to achieve what proved a precarious national unity.

Portrait of George Washington by John Trumbull, 1790.
Trumbull gave this portrait to Martha Washington as a
gift. It depicts Washington at Verplanck’s Point near
Yorktown in 1782.
Washington’s Revolution is not an exercise in exploring the symbolic and mythological place of Washington in American history. It is not hagiography, but it is largely laudatory, a chronicle of the real and perhaps less “heroic” challenges he faced as the primary actor in America’s fight for independence. The Washington we get here is, in fact, the kind of ideal leader we long for. Middlekauff paints a portrait in which Washington’s commitment to the national cause, his practical ability and political skills, his will and judgment, his toughness and endurance, while not making us feel intimate with the man (one wonders if that is possible) are shown to be achievements that grew out of a vision of his country that transcended partisan or personal interests.

Contrary to the common misconception of things, the American Revolution was not a series of formal pitched battles between armies in which the Americans defeated British regulars. It was a war of attrition, in which Washington, however much he craved direct and bold action, carefully avoided open battles that would risk the loss of his army. He could seldom hope for a circumstance where he had superiority over British troops and the British Navy, and to lose such a battle would have ended the Revolution. Yorktown, which caused the British cabinet to reassess its hopes for holding the American Colonies in the British Empire, was more a successful siege than it was a battle, and it came about because the French and Americans (for the first time) were able to assemble both troop and naval superiority. We learned as school children that the entry of France into the war was helpful to the American cause, but in Washington’s Revolution we come to understand that it was in fact crucial. It made possible the victory at Yorktown, but more importantly it shifted the focus of the war from America to the West Indies, which were considered economically more important to Britain and its West Indian stockholders than were the Colonies. British land and naval forces were pulled from the American campaign to defend British possessions in the West Indies. Some of the most interesting passages in Washington’s Revolution, an exposition that will be new to most readers, describe Washington’s relationship with the French commanders and admirals in the American theater. His collaboration with the Comte de Rochambeau and his success in changing French Admiral de Grasse’s mind about abandoning the naval siege at Yorktown were critical to the outcome of the Revolution.

Siège de Yorktown by Auguste Couder, 1836. Rochambeau and Washington are depicted
giving their last orders before the battle.

The French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse,
by Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1842

It may conflict with our images of glorious battle and victory, but it is clear from Washington’s Revolution that the key to winning the Revolution, and Washington’s great achievement, was the enormous organizational and administrative task of simply building and keeping the Continental Army together. The author is relentless is showing us the frustrations that Washington faced in trying to field a professional army. When he took command of the army surrounding Boston after the Battle of Bunker Hill he described the soldiers as “nasty,” “dirty,” “raw,” and undisciplined, and thought that the New England tradition of liberty and equality (and the absence of a “gentleman” class, such as the one Washington belonged to in Virginia) worked sorely against the structure of command and discipline an army required.

One of his major frustrations was trying to develop a competent officer class. But his essential and perennial problem, the one that overshadowed all, was that the army simply faded away over and over again and had to be constantly rebuilt. The strength of the army fluctuated wildly, due both to desertions and to short-term enlistments, especially among the various state militias that sent troops to the Continental Army. From troops more loyal to their individual colonies than to the national cause, Washington had to create a national and united army with a central command structure. And of course his ability to do this was severely limited by the lack of a strong central governing authority. Congress had no power to tax, and therefore had to rely on each colony for funds to support the army, a situation that resulted in delinquent pay for soldiers, uncertain promises about benefits and pensions for service, and an army constantly short of adequate material and logistical support. In trying to address these concerns, Washington had to manage the politics of dealing with Congress in a situation where, as the author writes, “The lines of his authority were not as clear as his responsibility for the American military effort.”

A Currier and Ives print of General George Washington’s
headquarters at Newburgh, 1856.
But for all he did in his role as commander of the Continental Army, the thing that set Washington apart, that in fact made him indispensable to the cause, was that he understood that although his role was that of commander of the Continental Army, he was, as well “…. the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws…..For Washington, more than any American leader in or out of Congress, by his actions and example, held together the political structure that constituted the United States.” A moment of crisis came at the end of the war at the headquarters of the Continental Army in Newburgh, New York. Washington confronted rebellious officers who wanted the Continental Army to assert its military strength to compel Congress to meet demands for back pay and pensions. In an emotional plea, Washington confronted the mutiny and insisted on the primacy of civilian authority over the military, arguing that the proposed action would be a betrayal of the Revolution. He insisted on the primacy of civilian authority, and as Middlekauff writes, “His thought indeed amounted to a form of constitutionalism. Here, on this matter of the people and the army, he insisted that the people’s voice should be loudest.” It was a principled stand. It was a refusal to seize a ready and proffered power. Washington made the republic possible.

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