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Q. Let’s start with the controversy itself.  Didn’t Benjamin Franklin famously claim in 1776 that if the Continental Army and Washington were destroyed at New York that the country would simply raise another army and commander?  Did other founders see Washington as less-indispensable?

JKM:   Benjamin Franklin was a talented politician and skilled diplomat but no expert on military matters. To think that the Continental Army, let’s say, could have been replaced if Washington’s force had been annihilated at the Battle of Long Island in August 1776 was a naive perception of reality. Franklin’s assumption that the patriot populace would have come out in droves after such a crushing defeat indicates his attachment to anti-standing army ideology. This belief depended on the well-established tradition of short-term militia service, to the effect that thousands more dedicated patriots were just waiting in the wings to get a crack at heavy duty combat. Influential rebel leaders in the Congress such as Samuel Adams held to the same tenets.

Then there was reality. Washington was already struggling to keep some semblance of a trained army in the field long before his Long Island debacle. Those 15,000 or so New England militia enthusiasts who poured forth during and after Lexington and Concord in April 1775 had mostly had their fill of the harshness of Continental service before the end of that year. By the thousands they did not re-enlist for service in 1776, despite desperate pleas from army recruiters to extend their enlistments for another six months. They had found military life to be extremely risky to their physical health and general well bring, especially given shortages of all kinds in regard to food, clothing, and other essentials. Many also resented Washington’s demands regarding rigorous training and discipline. In short, the freehold farmers of Lexington and Concord fame chose to rush home after a few months of standing up to British forces. If called to come out again, they would do so for a few days or weeks of militia duty, but mostly begrudgingly so.

George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (US Senate)
George Washington at Princeton by Charles Willson Peale (US Senate)
Washington, not yet viewed in 1776 as “indispensable” leader, understood what Franklin and other republican purists, those who believed the war could be won with a people’s army made up of highly patriotic short-term enlistees, did not. The rage militaire, or popular passion for arms, was already in retreat among the patriot populace by early 1776. For Washington, defeating well-trained British forces dictated the need to establish “a respectable army” that would feature soldiers who agreed to long-term service, accepted arduous training and discipline, and would not split and run when facing massed British arms, no matter how battered and beaten they were.

In sum, Washington accepted military reality for what it was, and he worked hard to construct that kind of Europeanized force with reluctant assistance from most anti-standing army delegates in Congress. Had he not done so, he likely never would have emerged as a “great man,” or more properly in today’s vocabulary a “great person.” Why? Had the destruction of his army actually taken place in 1776, there is not one scintilla of evidence, despite Franklin’s musings, that another patriot army would have magically popped into existence. Further, had there been so totally a crushing British victory in 1776, Washington would have come down to posterity as anything but an “indispensable” person in the making. Rather, today, he would be hissed and booed as a treasonous rebel upstart--sort of a Guy Fawkes type who had foolishly attempted to break free from a most benevolent British empire

Q:        What is "Great Man Theory", and how do you feel the academic community views the theory today?

JKM:  Let’s start with some fundamental questions. Are people just minor or major actors in the life drama of human history? Are they just dragged through life controlled by the customs and beliefs of their times, or can their actions actually influence the course of events in their own times–and well beyond? Stated another way, do the times shape individual lives, or can individual lives help shape current and future events? And is it possible that one person can have such a short- and long-term impact on human history? In relation to “Great Man” theory, did George Washington become that kind of transforming “historical figure?”

Many of today’s academics would quickly deny this latter possibility. Liberally making their own moral judgments, as numbers of them do, predicated on present-minded rather than contextually centered analytical thinking about America’s past, Washington has been blithely dismissed as a white male slave holder of great privilege who prospered in life on the labor of his chattels. The Continental commander in chief, they conclude, may have helped win a war but accomplished little else of lasting historical value or importance.

The full range of historical evidence calls into question this kind of narrowly focused historical interpretation. How so? Washington was a leader who did not have to do or have everything done for his personal benefit. He believed deeply in the cause of American liberty, and he refused to allow himself, unlike many other revolutionary leaders of the Cromwellian or Napoleonic stripe, to seize all military and political power for his own self-serving purposes. He never wavered from viewing the American Revolution as an instrument of human liberation–at no point perfect in his own time (or even our own) but an ideal that the maturing American republic might someday achieve.

In other words, by his actions, Washington would bend the historical forces of his times away from inhibiting monarchical regimes to more liberating republican (some might say democratic) political and social systems. He had the stamina, courage, and determination to persist and endure in his military actions to help bring into being a less tyrannical world. Washington’s commitment to something greater than himself set him on a course toward becoming a “great person” for all time.

Q:        Ok, but looking at Washington as a ”Great Man” or “historical figure,” why did the Continental Congress choose George Washington to lead the Continental Army when there were several viable candidates?

General Thomas Gage
General Thomas Gage
JKM:       On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress “adopted” the New England rebel force that had General Thomas Gage’s British redcoats entrapped in Boston. It was no secret that these rebel enthusiasts under arms operated more like a semi-organized mob than a well-organized army. To achieve a semblance of good order, the delegates needed to select a potentially strong leader with significant military experience. Among them stood Washington, wearing his Fairfax County militia uniform; he said he was ready to serve the cause in any military capacity.

Washington was no empty suit. He had gained significant military experience in leading Virginia’s militia forces during the French and Indian War. He was well-known for playing a crucial role in rescuing General Edward Braddock’s army back in 1755 when that force faced virtual extermination at the Battle of the Monongahela. That he was a Virginian was also important. No doubt his presence at the head of the Continental army would encourage other colonies to the south of New England to get involved in supporting the rebellion.

As an “available person” ready to assume high rank, Washington was also the one “logical person” prepared to take on the highest command post. John Adams, in his June 15 nomination speech, addressed Washington’s “independent fortune” and “excellent universal Character,” the kind of true “Gentleman” who could “unite the cordial Exertions of all the Colonies better than any other Person in the Union.”

Concerned about anointing a potential tyrant in military garb, the delegates were confident that Washington, a man of established character and significant wealth, would never become the kind of commander who, once imbued with martial power, would think of using his army to establish some form of military dictatorship. Their faith was that Washington would become a great unifier, not a potential ego dominated destroyer of the people’s liberties.

No other candidate–Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, and John Hancock among them– possessed the proper mix of qualities that confirmed Washington as the most “logical” choice of the “available” men. In 1775, no one, not even Washington, could predict whether he would succeed, let alone become a “great person,” a “historical figure” of enduring consequence. Even Washington, in his acceptance speech on June 16, was not sure what he could accomplish. “I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with,” he stated humbly. Wisely, he did not underrate his opponent or overrate himself.

Q:        All right, but while Washington led his army to notable victories at Boston, Trenton, and Princeton, he also authored more than his fair share of defeats.  How did Washington survive these setbacks?

JKM:   As commander in chief, Washington brought his military experience, his knowledge of logistics and administration, and his humility to the battlefield. He knew that he did not know everything, and he was eager to listen and learn. When serious campaigning got under way in 1776, Washington quickly proved that he would aggressively stand and fight, even with an army that was seriously deficient in proper combat training, especially going up against highly disciplined British and Hessian regulars.

Washington was lucky not to have his outflanked army torn to pieces at Brooklyn Heights. Later that year he foolishly lost some 3,000 soldiers he had charged with defending Fort Washington near the northern end of Manhattan Island. In 1777 he was once again outflanked at Brandywine (September) and outmaneuvered at Germantown (October).

General Charles Lee
General Charles Lee
His critics were numerous. Among them was General Charles Lee, who was ready to go to Congress in November 1776 and offer to take over command. Washington, in Lee’s words, was “a decisive Blunderer.” Washington’s trusted aide de camp, Pennsylvanian Joseph Reed, had already turned against him, and so too did the ever ambitious Horatio Gates, the so-called “hero of Saratoga” who in late 1777 was at the center of the Conway Cabal, a complicated plot to oust Washington in favor of naming Gates commander in chief.

Washington, however, refused to be cowed. Yes, he lost battles but he kept the army alive while repeatedly reminding civilian authorities how poorly his ragtag force was being supported by Congress and the civilian populace. He cultivated a loyal following among his key ranking officers, men like Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox, and also among his soldiers who grumbled constantly but understood that he was doing as much as any person could to keep them operational, despite shortages of every kind. Washington’s personal charisma was also an important part of the formula that sustained him at the head of the army, since there was scant evidence that Gates or any other aspirant could provide more effective leadership.

Most of all, Washington refused to quit when the odds heavily favored his British opponent. Once his army survived Valley Forge and showed its mettle in combat at Monmouth in late June 1778, he remained in full command control for the rest of the war. As such, the “available man” was now emerging as the “indispensable” leader, a necessary step along the road to becoming a heroic “historical figure.”

Q:        Even so, we need to ask if successful generals need to be tactically brilliant to be “Great Men”?  Was Washington?

George Washington at Dorchester Heights (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
George Washington at Dorchester Heights (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
JKM:    Frankly, Washington wasn’t much of a skilled tactician. He proved it when easily outflanked by British/Hessian forces during the Battle of Long Island in August 1776, and then again during the Brandywine engagement in September 1777. Successful generalship, however, involves much more than tactical know how. Critically important is strategic vision, at which Washington excelled. He understood and fully absorbed the central objective–win the war. Amid his battlefield setbacks, he never lost sight of the essential need to keep his army alive because without some sort of functioning Continental force, the patriot cause was for all practical purposes dead.

In regard to accepted forms of military strategy, there are three basic approaches–annihilation, attrition, and exhaustion. Washington knew he could not engage in a winner-take-all set piece battle. Any attempt to annihilate the enemy’s force was unrealistic, if not foolhardy. That left attrition, or just picking away and wearing down the enemy over a period of time. Hand in hand with attrition was exhausting the British, or stretching out the war until Crown officials saw more advantage to quitting the contest than continuing the fight.

Washington somehow kept his army from disintegrating, even with serious line mutinies in 1780 and 1781, until invaluable French intervention and assistance resulted in the defeat and surrender of Charles, Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown in October 1781. At that point, British leaders back in England decided that they could suffer greater losses to imperial holdings if they kept trying to snuff out a rebellion that had become a world war. In essence, attrition led to exhaustion, with Washington and his Continentals winning the day.

The surrender of the British forces at Yorktown. Painting by John Trumbull (US Capitol)
The surrender of the British forces at Yorktown. Painting by John Trumbull (US Capitol)

What Washington repeatedly did through eight long years of war was make enough brick without straw to keep the Revolution alive. He did so with grit and determination in strategic thinking and actions that overcame his tactical failures while wearing out the enemy’s will to continue the fight. Because he appreciated the big picture, Washington proved to be an outstanding commander, thereby putting himself in position for consideration as an invaluable “historical figure.”

Q:        Washington certainly had his rivals amongst the senior officers, but what did his men think of him?  Did they see him as “indispensable”?

JKM:     When Washington arrived at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in early July 1775, he was appalled. He described the militiamen before him as “an extremely dirty and nasty people.” Their junior grade officers represented “the most indifferent kind of People I ever saw.” The task was how to turn this surly, ill-disciplined bunch of volunteers into an effective fighting force.

The Passage of the Delaware (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
The Passage of the Delaware (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
For Washington, based on his French and Indian War experience, the answer was simple. “Discipline is the soul of the army,” he stated, and such was his operational approach to bringing order out of chaos. In many ways, he did not succeed at first. No matter how hard he tried, building an army that would endure for the long term evaded him in 1775, as evidenced by the unwillingness of thousands of these sunshine soldiers to re-enlist for service in 1776.

Battered and beaten during the New York campaign in the summer and fall of 1776, his army almost ceased to exist when fleeing across New Jersey and over the Delaware River to Pennsylvania. Still, Washington refused to give up. He served as a model of resistance, the truly virtuous Revolutionary who would not go down without a serious fight. The great and unexpected turnabout victory at Trenton convinced just enough soldiers that the patriot cause was worth saving, regardless of the pain of their personal sacrifice.

As the number of soldiers under Washington’s command declined over time, those who committed to long-term service learned to appreciate the importance of the kind of rigorous training and discipline that would bring about military victory. After Valley Forge, and with inestimable assistance from Baron von Steuben, the soldiery more and more viewed Washington as an ideal commander who was always standing with them, regardless of daunting circumstances. For them, he had become the embodiment of Revolutionary service and sacrifice, the “indispensable” leader around whom to rally, except during those times when camp and living conditions were so horrible that line mutinies broke out and threatened the army’s continued existence.

Q:        What are some of your thoughts on what would have happened to the Revolution if Washington was captured at Brooklyn or killed at Princeton?

Horatio Gates
Horatio Gates
JKM:    Benjamin Franklin, as already noted, didn’t think it would have been a serious a blow to the rebellion had the Continental army been severely defeated or destroyed in 1776. So let’s assume hypothetically that Washington did not survive an early engagement. The question becomes: Was there a worthy replacement waiting in the wings? Was it the experienced British officer and well-known eccentric Charles Lee, or perhaps self-serving Horatio Gates, the onetime British major who had been wounded during Braddock’s Monongahela defeat? What about John Hancock, the wealthy Massachusetts patriot with a smattering of militia experience who was then serving as the president (glorified secretary) of the Continental Congress? Or possibly even the Northern Department commander, the gentleman patrician Philip Schuyler?

Given these choices, the cause would have been in serious trouble, even if the Continental army had not suffered the kind of overwhelming defeat suggested by Franklin. Charles Lee believed he could rally all the populace into a true people’s army predicated on universal militia service. Reality about the willingness of so many freehold farmers and tradespeople to pour forth suddenly was wishful thinking at best. However, Lee made the mistake of being captured by the British while lingering in New Jersey during mid-December 1776, even as he plotted to take over command from Washington. Horatio Gates went from congressionally mandated hero status related to Saratoga to losing disgracefully at the Battle of Camden in South Carolina during mid-August 1780. Definitely ambitious, Gates had proved himself a worthy staff officer, but greatness in line command leadership was well beyond his capacities. As for Hancock, he lacked real combat experience and had only served as a militia leader back in Boston. He fancied himself looking especially dashing in a military uniform, but he would have been lost in the fundamental art of command. Schuyler was a possibility, but the New Englanders in Congress despised him. He never would have received an offer, if the likes of Samuel and John Adams had any voice in the matter, as they did.

Fortunately, Washington survived his first battles, even when he led out front, at least briefly, during the Princeton engagement in early January 1777. Congressional delegates had selected well in appointing Washington their commander in chief. Given the options, he was by far the best choice among Lee, Gates, Hancock, and Schuyler. The war, as it unfolded, allowed Washington to prove himself as a most worthy, indeed indispensable “historical figure.”

Q:        Is there a concluding incident involving Washington that Great Man Theory helps explain?

JKM:     In many ways, Washington’s finest moments as a military leader occurred in 1782 and 1783, after the major fighting had ended in North America. His most significant challenge came in the form of a restive, mutinous minded army that had suffered from debilitating shortages for so many years. With peace on the horizon, officers and soldiers alike feared being discharged from the army without receiving long overdue back pay–and for the officers, promised half-pay pensions for life to begin at war’s end. Their cumulative anger focused on what they viewed as an unsupportive civilian populace and a haplessly weak Congress.

Congress was all but helpless in regard to coming up with pay of any kind. With no power of taxation and foreign loans (mostly from France) drying up, the delegates could do almost nothing to relieve the mounting tension. In the spring of 1782 some officers fairly begged Washington to take over the feeble national government. As Col. Lewis Nicola wrote, summarizing the sentiments of others, Washington should accept “the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages,” such as properly providing at long last for the army’s fundamental needs. Absolutely appalled, Washington scoffed at this idea. Referring to him as “His Excellency” was one matter, but making him a dictator would have completely undermined everything the Revolution was about in producing a freedom loving republic.

During the autumn of 1782, Washington began moving his army of about 7,500 soldiers–this number also included wives, consorts, and children–into its final winter campsite at New Windsor, New York. This location was close to the small town of Newburgh that hugged the western shore of the Hudson River, about sixty miles north of New York City. There this Continental force watched and waited for the British to remove the remainder of their troops from Manhattan and environs. The evacuation finally occurred in late November 1783 after the peace treaty between Britain and its former colonies had been officially signed.

Angry at the prospect of being “turned adrift like old worn-out horses” (the words of soldier Joseph Plumb Martin) with the arrival of peace but without proper salary payments and civilian recognition of the army’s sacrifices, the officers began plotting to threaten Congress into coming up with long promised financial compensation–or else. By March 1783, the plot thickened into what we have come to call the Newburgh Conspiracy, a complex series of events with the objective of having Horatio Gates, second in command at Newburgh, replace Washington at the head of the army, which in turn would not lay down its arms when final peace terms were signed.

On March 15, 1783, Washington called his mutinous officers to account in a tension filled meeting at the New Building (also called the Temple of Virtue) at the center of the New Windsor cantonment. If there is such a thing as a true “historical moment,” this was Washington’s. He called the officers back to their senses in what has been labeled the new nation’s “most dangerous hour.” Through soothing words, he reminded them of the purpose and meaning of their service, that liberty must triumph over tyranny, that any thought of a coup against Congress was unthinkable.

Then, for the first time, Washington displayed reading glasses that he had never worn in public before. When the assembled officers murmured in surprise, he seized the moment and ad libbed: “Gentlemen, you must pardon me: I too have grown gray in your service and I too find myself going blind.” Yes, he was like them. He, too, had sacrificed and given the best years of his life to a cause that should not be allowed to end in some form of dictatorship. The officers calmed down and soon cast aside any notion of rising up against the republic they had played so central a part in bringing into existgence.

Some might argue that Washington had not yet risen to “great person” status until his brilliant maneuvering to bring an end to the Newburgh Conspiracy. By taking charge at this critical “historical moment,” he saved the Revolution from a major mutiny that could have morphed into a coup d’etat–the beginning of a process by which the expectant republic would have devoured itself.

Sculpture of George Washington by Horatio Greenough (Smithsonian)
Sculpture of George Washington by Horatio Greenough (Smithsonian)
Over the next few months Washington kept working to resolve a host of pressing problems before he traveled to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress was then meeting. On December 23, 1783, he resigned his military commission. In so doing, he established the key principle for the new republic that military power must always remain subordinate to civilian authority. Bidding “an affectionate farewell to this august body,” he rode home to Mount Vernon, arriving there on Christmas Eve, never having abused his military power. Like the famous Roman general Cincinnatus, he laid down his sword, hoping the people would continue with the difficult task of making the United States a truly worthy, freedom loving republic among the nations of the world.

Greatness for Washington, then, was not only because he came out, stayed out, and ultimately gained the laurels of victory in the War for Independence. It was also that he did so in so selfless a manner. He was no Oliver Cromwell or later revolutionary leaders turned dictators like Napoleon Bonaparte or Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. King George III, of all people, understood what George Washington had accomplished. As the war was ending, the king asked the well-known American born painter Benjamin West, then living in England, whether Washington would give up the power that was his as commander in chief and go peacefully home. West replied that, yes, he would. To which George III declared, “If Washington does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Dr. James Kirby Martin

Martin recently completed his lengthy teaching career by serving as the Charles Boal Ewing Visiting Professor of Military History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. In entering the ranks of emeritus professors, he is now focusing on finishing two book projects, one on the “remarkable” American Revolution and one on George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the nature of Revolutionary leadership. Additional book projects lie ahead, as well as an effort to bring to movie theater screens the pivotal nation forming story of George Washington’s Newburgh experience.

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