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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?

ML:         Right, Franklin said it.  So did other patriots including Signers such as Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush and the Massachusetts cousins John and Samuel Adams. In fact John Adams scoffed at the idea of an indispensable Washington or an indispensable anyone.  In this line of thinking the patriot cause was too broad and popular for success to depend on any particular individual—or even on a particular army.  We have to remember that the colonies had little in the way of any regular army tradition.  They depended on militia, which their republican ideology glorified as free citizens in arms—a force far superior (or so they thought) to regular troops.  If a militia force got beaten, another supposedly would rise from the citizenry under new leaders.

Other contemporaries, however, felt differently, especially as the war went on.  The Marquis Lafayette, Nathanael Greene, Henry Knox, and many other military and civilian leaders—and certainly Washington—came to believe that only professional soldiers could wage a long war and stand up to the redcoats.  Militia simply lacked the training and the ability to keep the field for long periods.  Eventually enough members of Congress came to accept this reality, and so, beginning in late 1776, Washington was able to start planning for a Continental Army of regulars.  As he put it, he wanted “a respectable army.”  Most historians of the War for Independence now agree that the Continentals were “indispensable” for the eventual American victory.  And while historians have gone back and forth on Washington as the “Indispensable Man”—to use James Flexner’s term—most recent scholarship has seen the Virginian as central (if not “indispensable” ) to the patriot triumph.

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

George Washington by Joseph Wright (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
George Washington by Joseph Wright (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
ML:         At its simplest, Great Man Theory (GMT) holds that in certain cases individuals can make a major difference in the direction of events.  This is not to say that other factors—culture, environment, economics, social and political conditions—don’t matter.  They do.  But GMT insists that in key situations Great Men (and now we would say Great Women) can take charge and decisively shape events.  GMT has had an uneven history with partisans defending and denouncing it on various grounds.  But it had a major resurgence just before and during World War II as the public tried to explain the likes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini. 

Today the theory is more alive in Europe that America, with its most sophisticated proponent being Russian historian and philosopher of history Leonid Efimovich Grinin.  Grinin uses the term “historical figure” rather than Great Man, and he spells out the circumstances under which a “historical figure” can emerge.  He sees a direct relationship between political instability, such as a revolution, and the ability of an individual to step up as a key leader (stable societies seldom need heroes to put things back in order). To qualify as a Great Man—or historical figure—an individual must be able to recognize and seize decisive moments; to act when no one else (even someone with talent) chose to step up; and at some point come to embody the spirit of “the masses.”  Washington would seem a good test of GMT, and the theory a good way to test Washington’s “indispensability.”  But until now no one has done either.

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?

ML:         Washington was in no way a Great Man as the Revolution ignited; that’s not why ended up commander-in-chief.  But he was the “available man” and even the “logical man.”  He had more practical military experience than other colonials and most in Congress knew as much.  His years with the Virginia militia had taught him a great deal, especially about the logistical and administrative aspects of keeping troops in the field.  And he was willing to serve in any capacity Congress asked of him.  New Englanders knew they could not fight alone, and they needed a way to bring other colonies into the war.  If Washington wasn’t a Great Man yet, he was a logical and available man.  Washington was also a southerner, and Virginia was the largest colony, and appointing him commander-in-chief was way to cement the South to the cause.  This appointment made a great deal of practical political sense.

There were alternative choices.  Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, and Richard Montgomery all had served with the British army in various capacities before the Revolution—and all would serve in the Continental Army.  But none of these men had Washington’s name recognition in America or his political connections; and it would have been awkward to have a recent transplant to America commanding the revolutionary armed forces.  Washington was the logical man.

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?

ML:         He almost didn’t survive them.  His decision to hold Fort Washington on Manhattan Island in late 1776 was disastrous, and Gates, Lee, and Washington’s own adjutant general, Joseph Reed of Pennsylvania, all had grave doubts about his performance.  In fact these men shared some pretty acerbic comments on the Virginian.  Later, in 1777, Washington’s defeats at Brandywine and Germantown, coupled with the loss of the de facto rebel capital of Philadelphia, led directly to the Conway Cabal and a real challenge to his authority as commander-in-chief.  It took all of Washington’s considerable political acumen to rally his friends and fend off his critics.

But you’ve brought up Trenton and Princeton, and here is where Washington as the Great Man or “historical figure” begins to emerge.  The Trenton counter-attack was something no one else could have done.  Washington conceived the idea when others were talking about retreating to the Philadelphia area—and still other patriots were just giving up on the cause.  It was a perfect example of the unstable revolutionary situation Grinin saw as the essential context for the emergence of a historical figure—or “hero” if you will.  Washington saw the opportunity and seized it.  Was there anyone else? No.  By this time Lee was a prisoner of war, Gates had left for Baltimore pleading illness, and Greene had not yet come into his own as a general. 

The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton by John Trumbull (Yale University Art Gallery)
The Death of General Mercer at the Battle of Princeton by John Trumbull (Yale University Art Gallery)
We can say the same of the engagement at Princeton.  Washington advanced into New Jersey against the advice of many patriots.  Again he seized Grinin’s “historical moment” and altered the course of the campaign, and perhaps the war.  What followed at Morristown was another example of the same thing.  In a time of political, social, revolutionary flux and unrest—precisely the circumstances when a Great Man can make the biggest impact—Washington rebuilt the Continental Army virtually from scratch.  With Congress decamped to Baltimore and the New Jersey legislature dispersed, the commander-in-chief virtually was the rebel government as he implemented recruiting, organizational, and logistics operations; coordinated supply and other support functions with regional political authorities; worked with militia officers; kept in touch with Congress; and mounted limited actions against British occupation forces.  He was the man on the spot and at the right time, and he rose to the occasion when there was no one else who could have done so.  He was also beginning to capture the public imagination—the spirit of “the masses”—as the only really unifying figure the patriot cause could point to at the time.  He was the very definition of a historical figure.

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

Washington and Rochambeau conferring during the Yorktown Campaign (Art Resources)
Washington and Rochambeau conferring during the Yorktown Campaign (Art Resources)
ML:         Brilliant?  No.  Just be better than the other guy—and in the end Washington was better than Howe, Clinton, and Cornwallis. A winner also has to be lucky—no less a figure than Napoleon said as much.  And Washington certainly had his share of luck: consider Brooklyn Heights when Howe failed to press his advantage against Washington’s trapped army.  Then there was Second Trenton when Cornwallis decided to hold off on a probably-decisive evening attack.  His decision to wait until the next morning allowed Washington to slip away and turn the tables on the British at Princeton.  Then, of course, there was Yorktown.  Washington had sense enough to listen to Rochambeau and seize the moment to march south to trap Cornwallis.  Throughout the conflict there was luck enough convince to Washington that “providence” was on his side.  Traditional military truisms hold that being lucky, with or without providence, and being better than the other guy, are the keys to success in war—and Washington was a perfect example.  But this goes back to a Great Man being able to recognize the “historical moment” and knowing when to act.  Washington had that instinct.  So maybe knowing when to act, and having luck enough for your enemies to give you an opening, is a version of “brilliance.” 

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

ML:         Eventually, “Yes,” they did.  We have mentioned that Great Man theory holds that at some point the historical figure comes to embody the will of, in Grinin’s term, “the masses.”  Early in the war Washington had not done that.  His success in whipping his raw troops into shape around Boston resulted in more grumbling in the ranks than praise.  But when we think of Valley Forge Washington comes into his own in identifying with his men.  He did not take leave during that difficult winter, and he was seen virtually every day trying to do his best to provide food, shelter, clothing, and equipment for his army.  The troops and his officers responded.  One of the best statements in this regard came from a young infantry captain: He would be happy, he wrote home, to see Congress relieve any officer other than “his Excellency.”  If Congress knew the bond the army had forged with its commander-in-chief, he concluded, no one ever would have thought to replace Washington with Horatio Gates.  The Battle of Monmouth confirmed this.  His men lauded his performance in combat, and Washington’s allies used his popularity to rout the general’s political critics.  Washington was clearly established as the embodiment of the patriot cause.

The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883 (Museum of the American Revolution)
The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883 (Museum of the American Revolution)

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?

ML:         “What would have happened?”  This gets an easy answer: “Nothing good.”  Look at all of the examples of Washington making the decisive decision, rallying “the masses” (that is, his army and then a broad spectrum of patriots), and bringing the range of skills he possessed to the patriot cause.  Was there any other comparable leader?  No.  The success of the Revolution depended on the success—or at least the effectiveness—of the Continental Army, and the army depended on Washington.  Thus without Washington we can reasonably speculate that the rebel cause would have been in very deep trouble.

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

ML:       Newburgh. There simply isn’t any better example of Washington grasping the “favorable moment” than when he faced-down the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy. In March 1783, with the army encamped at Newburgh, New York, awaiting word on a final peace treaty, resentments among the officers over congressional bad faith and neglect of financial settlements threatened to boil over. With emotions running high, at least some officers contemplated direct action against Congress. Anonymous circulars—although probably authored by Major John Armstrong, an aide to Major General Horatio Gates—called for protests and hinted at more. Maybe some sort of coup? Perhaps a refusal to demobilize after the peace? We are not really sure. But whatever the plans, Washington appeared uninvited at an officers’ meeting chaired by Gates. In one of the most—if not the most—dramatic episodes of his career, the commander-in-chief put his prestige on the line. He emotionally urged his officers not to blemish the record their common sacrifices had established. Any notions of conspiracy or organized protest evaporated.

Without Washington at Newburgh, who would have stopped a disgruntled officer corps from disgracing itself—and forever endangering the American tradition of military subordination to civilian authority? Who else could have captured “the sentiments of the masses” (in this case the officer corps)? There was no one else capable of acting at the key moment. As at Newburgh, time and again over the course of the war Washington had acted. He recognized and seized the “favorable moment” to direct the course of history, and such consistency is not the stuff of coincidence or chance. At the times and places Washington acted, he was the only one who could have done so effectively. The Revolution was fortunate that he did.


Mark Edward Lender

Mark Edward Lender is Professor Emeritus of History at Kean University, Union, New Jersey, and he now spends his time as a full-time writer and historian (with breaks for travel and keeping up with very active grandsons). His most recent books are The War for American Independence (ABC-CLIO, 2016), and the award-winning Fatal Sunday: George Washington, the Monmouth Campaign, and the Politics of Battle (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016, with Garry Wheeler Stone). Early in 2018 he completed a fellowship at the Fred W. Smith National Library at Mount Vernon writing a new history of the Conway Cabal—which Lender insists was real. Next up will be another project with Jim Martin looking at Benedict Arnold’s career as a British general.

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