The Indispensable Man?
Mark Edward Lender Responds
Read our interview with Mark Edward Lender on the subject of Washington being the indispensable man of the American Revolution.
By Mark Edward Lender
In 1965 James Flexner published the first volume of his biography of George Washington in which he coined the term now indelibly stamped on the image of the iconic Founder: Washington was the “indispensable man.”1 Supposedly, he was the individual central to American victory in the struggle for independence and without whom the cause would have failed. No one has seriously disputed the importance of Washington’s role; more than anyone, the rebel commander in chief emerged as the public face of the Revolution, the Olympian figure who persevered through the darkest days of the War for Independence and led his ragged Continentals to victory.
But indispensable? Really? Was any one individual caught up in a movement as broad and multifaceted as the revolutionary struggle really irreplaceable? John Adams, one of the men who proposed Washington as patriot commander in chief, thought not. “The Idea that any one Man alone can save Us,” he wrote to his friend Benjamin Rush, “is too silly for any Body . . . to harbor for a Moment.” In his view the Revolution was too big an event to ride on the fortunes of one man. But Adams instinctively distrusted powerful generals as threats to liberty, and he ventured his opinion in early 1778 when Washington’s generalship had come under considerable criticism.2
Adams’s skepticism hardly settled the issue. Others of the revolutionary generation were fully convinced only Washington’s leadership saved the patriot cause from certain defeat. The young Lafayette tellingly wrote Washington: “if You were lost for America, there is no Body who Could keep the army and the Revolution [alive] for Six months”; and Henry Laurens, president of Congress, feared “the ruin of our cause” without the commander in chief at the helm.3 So we are left with the question: If Washington had never existed, or had not received the top patriot command, or been killed in action, would the Revolution have failed?
Historians have long grappled with similar questions about the Father of His Country. Absent Washington, could other patriots have led the rebel armies to success? It is one of the great “what if” questions of American history, and not everyone has shared Flexner’s certainty on the matter. Narrow military debate goes back and forth over Washington’s merits vis-à-vis other generals. Aside from Flexner, the formal literature directly addressing the question is actually quite small. In 1940 Bernhard Knollenberg published his debunking look at Washington’s leadership; Knollenberg thought highly of Horatio Gates and hardly considered Washington indispensable. Historian John Ferling, a distinguished Washington scholar, has hedged a bet on the issue. He admires Washington’s strength of character and considers his military leadership “mostly laudatory, if not brilliant.” Still, he has pointed out we really don’t know if another general might have done as well as the patriot chief simply because Washington successfully froze out or politically outfoxed potential rivals. Artemus Ward, Charles Lee, and Horatio Gates all fell into this category.4 Any others who may have seen themselves in the role, such as John Hancock—who, just in case, brought a splendid new uniform to Philadelphia with him in 1775—never figured seriously in the question. At least we can believe that Washington was a better political general than any others in the Revolution’s military pantheon (no small point, and it merits further comment later).
Most modern Washington scholars are solidly in Washington’s corner. While they find him human and with his share of vanity, ambition, and fallibility—he could be vindictive to anyone who crossed him—there is a broad consensus that Washington possessed a rare combination of military, patriotic, administrative, leadership, and political attributes unmatched by any other American commander. Certainly this is the opinion of Edward Lengel, Washington’s best military biographer. Significantly, Lengel holds that Washington brought unity to a cause that local disputes and contending personalities well might have fractured; he also points out that Washington was lucky—a trait no one less than Napoleon considered an essential component of a successful general. Several times Sir William Howe failed to follow up victories against Washington and finish off the battered Continental Line, proving “the old military maxim that to be good, a commander only has to be better than his opponent. That Washington was.”5 Donald Higginbotham found a national vision in Washington that transcended the regional perspectives of many revolutionaries; this wider view allowed the commander in chief a broad strategic grasp of military and diplomatic issues that eluded many of his contemporaries.6 Robert Middlekauff, one of the deans of Revolutionary history, sees Washington persevering and triumphing as no other patriot leader could have, given the obstacles he faced.7 If anything, Washington’s stock with historians is higher now than ever.
These complimentary assessments, however, can never fully settle arguments over whether the Revolution would have failed absent Washington’s leadership. The question is fraught with too many intangibles. The same is true of related questions: If the rebel commander in chief was truly indispensable, under what criteria can we make such a claim? And how did one man rise to and maintain such stature amid an event so extensive and complex in scope and of such long duration (eight years of conflict!) as the War for Independence? Still, we have to ask these questions—Washington was (and is) too important and intrinsically interesting a figure to do otherwise.
Traditional explanations of Washington’s stature—comparisons to other patriot leaders and accounts of his talents, character, and accomplishments—have been revealing (as we have seen). However, there is another approach to examining the “indispensable man.” This path leads us to the often jargon-laden thicket of philosophical-historical theory; it can be tough going but worth the effort if it reveals a better glimpse of America’s leading Founding Father. I refer to the so-called “Great Man Theory”: a view that contradicts determinist theories of history (such as Marxism) and insists the actions of particular individuals can directly affect the course of events. That is, what individuals do, especially in critical situations, matters; and thus the actions of individual men (and we would now add individual women) can dramatically shape the directions of history.
This is not the place to deal with the Great Man idea in its entirety, but if we are to use it to test Washington—and Washington to test the theory—some Great Man basics are in order. At first glance the idea seems little more than common sense, but in fact the Great Man has been a matter of controversy. In the 1840s one of its first prominent advocates was the Scottish historian and philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who proclaimed: “Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” Such men, or “heroes,” even created the conditions for their success; social or other circumstances had little to do with their influence. In support of his argument Carlyle cited the lives of Luther, Muhammad, Rousseau, Cromwell, Napoleon and others he considered in the heroic category.8
To one degree or another the Great Man theory gained the support of other scholars, notably Americans Frederick Adams Woods, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologist and early practitioner of “cliometrics” (the application of statistical analyses in the search for historical causation), and pragmatist philosopher William James. The works of Woods and James were considerably more sophisticated than Carlyle’s, and in different degrees they conceded the significance of environmental influences on human actions; they also dispensed with Carlyle’s view that providence lay behind the actions of Great Men. Still, they believed key individuals (in the case of Woods, strong and intelligent monarchs) had a profound and primary influence on the course of history.9
The Great Man in all its forms, however, quickly drew the fire (and ire) of determinist thinkers. In the 1860s British philosopher and evolutionist Herbert Spencer caustically dismissed Carlyle. He insisted “the genesis of a great man” was the result of “the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears. . . . Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.” In such a view even “heroes” operate only in social milieu borne of years of complicated factors that minimize the impact of individual human decisions. “Even were we to grant the absurd supposition that the genesis of the great man does not depend on the antecedents furnished by the society he is born in,” Spencer went on, “there would still be the quite-sufficient facts that he is powerless in the absence of the material and mental accumulations which his society inherits from the past, and that he is powerless in the absence of the co-existing population, character, intelligence, and social arrangements.”10 In this view humans are swept along with the tide of events, trends, and large-scale circumstances mainly beyond the control of any single person. That being the case, no one man could be indispensable; John Adams would have agreed.
Strict determinists, doctrinaire Marxists in particular, will concede only that individuals might nudge the course of history one way or another—or impede or accelerate events to some minimal extent—but never appreciably change the immutable laws of historical development. In this worldview the march to the future was inevitable—a perspective directly opposite Carlyle’s but arguably just as doctrinaire.
There was also a middle ground. In the late nineteenth century Charles Rappoport, a French Marxist scholar and activist, argued that a Great Man (he preferred the term “historical figure”) was “sometimes the agent, sometimes a product of history.”11 This also has the ring of common sense, although Rappoport reached his conclusion only after an exhaustive review of historical theories of social development and the role of individuals. He acknowledged the importance of “natural” forces such as economic trends, social mores, material conditions, and geography—which he termed the “objective perspective”—in determining the course of history. But he found that only a “synthesis of subjective perspective [individual action and decision] and objective perspective” comes closest to “scientific truth” in explaining historical developments.12
Rappoport’s ideas were interesting for those interested in the Great Man idea, but with some exceptions they did not generate much enthusiasm among historians. He received more attention among Europeans than Americans (in part because there was no English edition of his work), but even in Europe the rise of the Annales school of history in the1930s, with its focus on long-term trends and collective social mentalities, deemphasized the role of individuals (much less “heroes”) in shaping events. In America by the 1920s the so-called “New History” pioneered by James Harvey Robinson and Charles Beard also had a collectivist bent, concerned as it was with the historical impact of complex economic and social relationships. Thus over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the determinist view, doctrinaire or not (and Annales historians, Robinson, and Beard were not), tended to eclipse the Great Man.
Interest in the Great Man revived with the coming of World War II. The rise of the likes of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini compelled a renewed focus on the role of individuals in history—for good or ill. Among other advocates the Great Man received a searching endorsement from political philosopher Sidney Hook (1902–1989). In his study The Hero in History (1943), Hook takes roughly the same ground as Rappoport; but Hook argued more forcefully that history followed no predetermined course, and (like Rappoport) he insisted that at critical junctures individual decisions could turn the path of the future.13 Hook even defined the “hero” or “event-making man,” the terms he preferred to Great Man: “The hero in history is the individual to whom we can justifiably attribute preponderant influence in determining an issue or event whose consequences would have been profoundly different had he not acted as he did.” Further, the “event-making man” acted as “the consequence of outstanding capacities of intelligence, will, [and] character rather than accident of position.” This observation did “justice to the general belief that a hero is great not merely in virtue of what he does but in virtue of what he is.”14 (Of the historical examples Hook cited, he failed to mention Washington—but you can see where this is going.)
The chief and most sophisticated modern proponent of this “middle ground” is Russian historian Leonid Grinin. He agrees with Rappoport and Hook but notes “the middle viewpoint” fails to explain “when and why an individual can have a great and decisive influence on events and when he cannot.”15 Grinin has studied the entire Great Man idea (he also prefers the term “historical figure”) with particular care, and he concludes that the influence of Great Men can vary according to social, political, economic, and other circumstances (no surprise). In Grinin’s analysis, however, not everyone active in great events qualifies as “an historical figure.” In a spectacularly Faulkneresque sentence he distinguishes between “ordinary and outstanding individuals.” The difference “may be generalized as follows”:
[O]wing to his or her personal features, or to a chance, or to his or her social standing, or to the peculiarity of the epoch, an individual by the very fact of his or her existence, by his or her ideas or actions (or inaction) directly or indirectly, during his or her lifetime or after his or her death may have such an influence upon his own or another society which can be recognized[as] significant as they left a noticeable mark (positive, negative or unambiguous) in history and in the further development of society.16
No doubt the elegance of the original Russian suffered in translation. The point, however, is clear enough: Like Hook, Grinin concludes that a historical figure—an “outstanding individual” or Great Man—leaves an indelible mark one way or another on the course of history, a mark invisible without the action of the “historical figure.” There were even some “unreplaceable” figures such as Alexander the Great, Caesar, or Napoleon (again, no Washington).
Such individuals, however, cannot act apart from circumstances, and Grinin’s central contribution to Great Man theory is his explanation of those circumstances—that is, the factors explaining when and why a “historical figure” can have an impact. Grinin’s key is the stability of a political or social structure. The more stable a political entity or society, the less influence an individual is likely to have; functioning bureaucracies, ministries, and generally contented populations have little need of heroes. Strong figures, however, can exert considerable influence when political stability is weak and unstable and events are in flux. As a general rule Grinin found “the role of an individual is inversely correlated with society’s stability and strength.” With older institutions crumbling or in disarray, individual actions or decisions have a greater chance to direct events, and revolution and state-formation are just such situations. Grinin uses the Russian Revolution as his example: “No doubt the exceptional will of Lenin, Trotsky and others played a remarkable role in getting and holding the power by the Bolsheviks. Should Lenin have not managed to come back to Russia from Switzerland . . . there would be no doubt that the destiny of Russia would have been more prosperous.”17
Grinin avoided American examples in testing his theory; had he done so, Washington would have been an obvious candidate. Thus it remains to examine General George Washington in the light of the Great Man idea.
Washington did not immediately spring forth as the Revolution’s Great Man. Early in the Revolutionary struggle different patriots (and not all of them) saw the Virginian as the right man for commander in chief, although not necessarily “indispensable.” His stature as the patriot icon emerged only over time, and in the eyes of most rebels probably was not “full-blown” until 1778 after the ordeal of the Valley Forge winter and the Battle of Monmouth. We need to trace this evolution.
If not the “indispensable man” early in the war, Washington was at least a “logical man.” Two points worked in his favor as an emerging patriot leader. The first was military. Washington had an accomplished record as a Virginia officer. As a young man he had made his share of mistakes during the French and Indian War (one of them started the war); but he had kept the Virginia Regiment in the field for years and had learned the basicsof senior command on the job. In 1775 Washington boasted a colonial military reputation and a degree of name recognition beyond most of his contemporaries; it would be difficult to name an American his equal in this regard. True, there were former British officers in America taking up the rebel cause; Horatio Gates, Charles Lee, William Maxwell, and Richard Montgomery all had considerable experience. But they were unknown quantities, newly in America (except for Maxwell) as permanent residents and lacking Washington’s recognition. The Virginian was a surer bet.
The second point was political. Congressional delegates had little in common beyond annoyance with imperial policies; they were not united in what to do about them even as the shooting started in Massachusetts. This was a dangerous way to conduct a war. John Adams, among others, knew that New England could not carry on alone. Adams also believed the war effort would fail without Americans acting in concert, and he thought a southern commanding general would foster the necessary unity. Washington, with his military background, was the obvious southerner; and the hope was that his appointment would cement the southern colonies, especially critical Virginia (then the largest colony), to the patriot cause. In some measure it did, although such things are difficult to gauge with precision. However, in that his appointment was popular and helped achieve the necessary political purpose, it marked the first time the Virginian served in what hinted at an indispensable role—that of a rebel symbol of unity.
That full role lay in the future; for the present (1775) at least he was in a position to directly influence the course of events around Boston. Also, hiring a commander in chief compelled the delegates to focus on the tasks of waging war, thus lending Congress a weight and prestige as a government it had previously lacked—an example of what Grinin would consider the “indirect” influence of a Great Man. Any cachet Washington gleaned from his new commission was lost on much of the army then gathered outside Boston. The new general had yet to prove himself, and his efforts to tighten army discipline proved unpopular with many of the unruly volunteers. Respect for Washington grew as he put his stamp on the army, but there is little to indicate his rank and file thought him indispensable even after he compelled the Britishto evacuate the city. Over 1776 officers and men saw little to encourage adulatory views of their commander. The defeats of that year, including the loss of New York City, the disasters at Forts Washington and Lee, and the humbling retreat across New Jersey, provoked public and private questions about Washington’s leadership. That he was the glue holding the patriot war effort together was recognized only in hindsight.
Yet Washington held the army together, and it was in this remarkable effort that for the first time he clearly displayed “unreplaceable” (Grinin’s word) talents and decisiveness. In a moment of crisis a forceful personality can direct the course of events, and it is no exercise in hero worship to credit Washington with dedication, decisiveness, and steady leadership in a dark hour. In private correspondence the general conceded the gravity of the situation in late December 1776, even admitting the rebel cause teetered on the brink of collapse. Publicly, however, he carried on. His efforts to rally men and resources and stage the brilliant Trenton and Princeton operations proved a tonic for patriot morale. His victories gave impetus to the Whig rising in the New Jersey countryside, dismayed the British, and kept the rebel effort alive. They also sent his own popularity soaring, and Washington deserved the accolades. Only he could have engineered the revival of patriot fortunes. There was no one else: Lee was a prisoner of war and had shown little cooperation anyway; pleading illness, Gates had absented himself from the army just before Trenton; and neither Greene nor any other Whig general was up to independent command at this stage of the conflict. The Trenton counterattack was Washington’s idea and he organized and led it; his historical impact was every bit the equal of Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg in 1917. Here, clearly, was a “historical figure”—the indispensable Washington.
Subsequent events revealed Washington in the same light. Trenton and Princeton did not end the revolutionary crisis. For the moment key patriot institutions were ineffectual. After granting the commander in chief almost dictatorial power, Congress had decamped to Baltimore. In New Jersey, where Washington had taken up winter quarters at Morristown, the legislature had dispersed, and the Continental Army was reduced to a rump as enlistments expired and militia outfits went home. The situation was a classic case of Grinin’s state of revolutionary flux, and once again Washington filled a leadership void. If his actions over the winter of early 1777 lacked battlefield drama, they were nevertheless pivotal in the history of the War for Independence. He successfully rebuilt the Continental Army, and he did so almost from scratch; the achievement was directly attributable to his leadership.
The task was not glamorous, and it hardly makes for exciting reading. Fortunately, however, Washington fully understood the importance of the more mundane, although critically important, aspects of military operations. Whether he liked it or not—and he accepted the task stoically—the commander in chief was a master of administrative minutiae. This was the never-ending “back-office” aspect of building and maintaining an army. Washington had learned the business commanding the Virginia Regiment on the frontier during the French and Indian War, and the experience had taught him wars were waged (and hopefully won) mostly off the battlefield by keeping troops fed, equipped, functional, and ready to fight. Combat was not an everyday occurrence. He was ready when the Revolution called on him to do the same. Even a cursory examination of his papers over early 1777 reveals an officer swamped in detail: His correspondence is a record of efforts to locate and move supplies; inquire about camp equipment, tents, wagons, tack, shovels, and firewood; maintain weapons and munitions; and keep tabs on recruiting efforts. No American officer did this better. Gates was good at it, but avoided it whenever he could; Greene would later prove superb, but his time as quartermaster general was long months away. Washington never shirked his administrative role, another instance of a man with a key talent being in a key place at a key time—and making a difference.
Success at Morristown required political skills of a high order. Washington had to operate in a political void, a situation Grinin would recognize as the flux inevitable amidst revolutionary upheaval. Americans had yet to create the bureaucracies and support institutions that raised and maintained European armies. Congress was learning on the job, and its Board of War was in its operational infancy; the thirteen states were sovereign, leaving Congress with only ill-defined authority to coordinate state activities on behalf of the Continental Army. Under the circumstances the rebel commander moved to fill the vacuum, presiding over what amounted to a semblance of coalition warfare. He did his best to unite Congress, the various states, and local Whig authorities behind a single military effort. Again, this was the role of a “historical figure”—an individual stepping into a crucial and fluid situation at a critical moment to send events in a particular direction. The general was in near-constant contact with congressional delegates, governors, and local New Jersey officials. He cajoled, respectfully insisted, and candidly discussed military needs with all manner of patriot civilians. The survival of the Revolution depended upon the revival of the Continental Army, and Washington was the driving force behind both.
These political talents were not new. Washington was a veteran of colonial Virginian politics, and he knew how to deal with politicians; he was ready when he had to deal with Congress. In this regard he proved his mettle early. After all, by late 1776 Washington already had persuaded balky delegates to overlook republican aversions to standing armies and allow him to recruit a professional Continental Line. This was a major accomplishment in and of itself; although given the pressing military situation and the need for a stronger army, perhaps another general could have convinced Congress. Actually, building the new army was a different matter, and at Morristown all of the pieces came together. Washington’s deft political touch, administrative ability, and dogged determination brought order to a situation that sometimes bordered on chaos and produced a Continental Army ready to fight by spring 1777. A survey of patriot military leadership will discover no other officer capable of such a feat; it is impossible not to admit Washington’s indispensable role. Significantly, he did all of this with no hint of a Caesar in his manner. Washington always maintained a public deference to civil authority, even when he privately seethed over slow or ignored responses to his requests. He was the servant of Congress, but his success in this role revealed a politician virtually in a class by himself. An effective commander in chief needs to be more than a general, and Washington was.
Of course, the general’s personal capital suffered grievously later in the year. The disappointments of the Philadelphia campaign, including the loss of the de facto capital, led to searing criticisms of Washington’s leadership. Yet two subsequent events—acting in parallel—served to confirm his central importance to the rebel cause. The first was the Valley Forge winter. Once again the general demonstrated an ability to work with Congress, this time including some delegates openly antagonistic to his command. It was a test of infinite patience and persistence in the face of a near-collapse of army logistics. It was also a test Washington passed. He remained with the army throughout the winter, never taking leave, visibly laboring for the welfare of the troops. With the congressional Committee at Camp the commander in chief ameliorated the supply crisis, and with Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben’s training regimen and a timely infusion of French matériel he and loyal officers brought the army through the winter in condition to fight in spring 1778. In the process he cemented the loyalty of the rank and file and of most of the officer corps. There was little question of who the soldiery considered the indispensable man. Captain Ezra Selden of the First Connecticut likely spoke for most troops when he wrote to a friend: “I am content should they remove almost any General Except his Excellency . . . even Congress are not aware of the Confidence The Army Places in him or motions would never have been made for Gates to take Command.”18
Not all patriots agreed, however, which brings us to our second point. While Washington faced the trials of Valley Forge, he also faced a stiff political challenge to his command. Historians have called the episode the Conway Cabal. The cabal already has claimed our attention in Chapter 3, but a brief recap is in order here. After the loss of Philadelphia, Washington’s military record unsurprisingly generated considerable criticism. There was never an organized effort to remove the commander in chief, but many (although not all) of the general’s critics wanted to replace him. Detractors scored Washington’s defeats and his efforts to build a regular army on the British model. Horatio Gates was the favored successor; Gates had won at Saratoga and seemed more in tune with republican ideological preferences for militia. Virtually no aspect of Washington’s leadership escaped criticism.
We should not forget that the general’s detractors were patriots. They shared the goal of independence and honestly believed Washington was not the general to win it. They did their best to influence the course of the Revolution, although in opposing Washington their efforts helped send events in a direction they failed to anticipate. Washington, of course, routed the cabal. This is not the place to recount the political maneuvers the general employed; it is enough to note that the criticisms, and a belief that a conspiracy to remove him was afoot, forced him to rally political support and fight back. This Washington did with subtlety and skill. By spring 1778, having subjected the general to a scathing “job performance evaluation” (so to speak), his critics had retreated into sullen or embarrassed silence. They may have found Washington wanting, but they failed to convince a majority of delegates to back any alternative choice. It amounted to a tacit but undeniable acknowledgment of his indispensable leadership status. (Which then leads to the question of who are we to doubt it?)
Washington had emerged from his ordeal stronger than ever. While he was in no mood to thank his critics—their actions had caused the general no end of distress—they had unwittingly given him the opportunity to consolidate his hold on the army and thus on Revolutionary leadership. That is, in their failure they had expanded the general’s ability to control the course of events. If Washington was not an archetypical “Great Man” before the cabal, he certainly was after it.
The Battle of Monmouth put an exclamation point on this verdict. It afforded Washington an opportunity to be rid of the irritating Charles Lee, an action part and parcel of dealing with the commander in chief’s congressional critics. For most patriots the battle also sealed his role as the personification of the Revolution. Monmouth was in fact a tactical draw. However, the general’s political and military allies mounted a brilliant “spin” campaign to credit their chief with a major victory—all he needed to effectively put himself beyond serious challenge for the rest of the war. The battle also offered some useful perspectives on the commander in chief. Washington was never a “soldiers’ general” in that he encouraged familiarity with the rank and file. He didn’t. Rather, he insisted on the distinctions and prerogatives of rank. Yet he had won the respect of the soldiery at Valley Forge, and at Monmouth he showed he could inspire them. The general was calm in the face of battle and was visible as he rode American lines directing the action. Any number of witnesses remembered Monmouth as Washington’s best performance as a combat leader, a day on which patriots fought as well as they ever had.19
Other officers fought well at Monmouth, but none garnered similar praise. It is always difficult to say precisely when a leader secures his emotional hold on his followers—that is, when the rank and file of any cause (“the masses” in Grinin’s terminology) instinctively see in their leader an “exponent” of their collective “spirit.” When it happens, however, the Great Man fully emerges, and with his will linked to the force of a mass following, his ability to affect historical change increases dramatically.20 Where and when did that happen for Washington? Probably not yet at Morristown. Perhaps at Valley Forge. But certainly after Monmouth. No other patriot leader, civilian or military, could claim such loyalty; none had an equal public persona.
Washington was never a tactical genius, and at Monmouth he did not have to be. The British did most of the attacking and the rebels were able to fight from good defensive positions. Arguably, at Monmouth and elsewhere, other patriot officers might have done better tactically. Perhaps another general would have assured better flank security at Brandywine, or better coordination of the attack at Germantown, or brought the main army up sooner to Lee’s support at Monmouth. We can never really know; but I doubt results would have differed appreciably. Bear in mind Washington’s combat losses came in 1776 and 1777, a point at which no other rebel commander showed any greater ability. Besides, he fought his losing battles largely without the “respectable army” he wanted so badly. Prior to 1778 he had some fine regulars, but many of his men were militia largely incapable of standing against some of the best professional troops in the world. Comparing Washington to other generals is intrinsically interesting but not especially revealing. Benedict Arnold, Anthony Wayne, Daniel Morgan, and Henry (Light Horse Harry) Lee were great fighters and—in a purely technical sense—may have been better tacticians, but they never commanded more than a division. Gates won at Saratoga without any real display of tactical acumen, and until his southern campaign in 1780 Greene had not come into his own as a commander. Thus for all we know, Washington, with all his tactical setbacks through 1777, was as good a field general as the Revolution could find.
Whatever his faults as a tactician, Washington had a firm grip on strategy. His was the long view, always with an understanding of his army’s capabilities. This strategic perspective was fundamentally different from that of his opponents—and for that matter, from that of some of his patriot critics who hungered for quick victory. While Generals Howe and Clinton tried to bring Washington to a decisive engagement, Washington’s priority was keeping the Continental Army—the mainstay of the Revolution—intact. Why risk the Continentals when he considered time was on the patriots’ side? Avoiding unnecessary losses, maintaining the American regulars as a credible force-in-being, and wearing away at the British in campaigns of attrition was in and of itself a winning strategy. Washington never strayed from it. A general does not have to be brilliant to be smart, and in Washington’s case there was wisdom in knowing when not to attempt something dramatic.
Of course Washington was willing to fight when he had to or when he felt conditions were favorable. Indeed, his instinct was offensive. Even in his “Fabian” period during spring 1777 he waged an aggressive skirmishing campaign in the New Jersey countryside (in fact, “Washington as Fabius” has received far too much attention). When not engaged in major operations the general encouraged the petite guerre of detachments under junior officers; and Washington endlessly sought ways to threaten New York City and keep Clinton off balance. There were also times when Washington was brilliant. Trenton was the classic example early in the war, and Yorktown was his crowning achievement. To be sure, the Yorktown operation merits particular comment. It was daring in the extreme and showed Washington at his indispensable best. He was decisive, seizing the moment in deciding to move south as soon as he learned the French fleet was moving to the Virginia Capes. The general marshaled talents as an army administrator in organizing the effort, diplomatic and political skills in managing a coalition with the French, and intelligence acumen in blinding Clinton as to American intentions. Virtually all of his command talents were in evidence. No one could have done better, and we would be hard put to suggest any other rebel commander who could have done as well.
Finally, we need to confront arguments to the effect that events one way or another, some time or another, would have brought other American leaders to the fore—thus rendering Washington’s indispensable status questionable or moot. Such arguments cannot withstand historical reality. History does not stand still, and if key individuals (call them Great Men or what you will) fail to seize the moment, events can run in decisively different directions. Sidney Hook and other writers have made this observation, and Grinin calls it the “role of the favorable moment.” History “is not programmed,” and once an individual misses the chance to take a critical step at a crucial juncture there is always the possibility that another leader, perhaps “even a much more talented individual would fail to do something.” A “historical figure” needs the personal qualities “to realize a historical chance” and to act before the moment passes. The test of individual significance lies in “the question if anybody else could have done the same under existing conditions.”21 Washington did not miss his chances. If he had failed to act at Trenton, would anyone else have organized a counterattack? If he had not taken charge at Morristown in early 1777, could the rebels have sustained a successful resistance? Could anyone else have pulled together the various elements that led to Yorktown?
All of these examples showed Washington as a man capable of decisive action at the right moment; but there is no better example of Washington’s grasping the “favorable moment” than his role in dealing with the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy. In March 1783, with the army encamped at Newburgh, New York, awaiting word on a final peace treaty, resentments in the officer corps over congressional bad faith and neglect of financial settlements came to a head. In an emotionally charged affair at least some officers contemplated direct action against Congress. Circulars by Major John Armstrong, an aide to Major General Gates, then Washington’s second in command, called for protests and hinted at more: perhaps a coup or a refusal to demobilize after the peace, although we are not really sure. Whatever plans were afoot, Washington appeared uninvited at an officers’ meeting chaired by Gates. In one of the most dramatic episodes of his career, the patriot chief put his prestige on the line, reminded the officers of their duty, and urged them not to blemish the record their common sacrifices had established. Any conspiracy evaporated.22 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?
To ask these hypothetical questions is to answer them: Time and again Washington 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, there was no one else who could have done the same.
By any measure, anecdotal or theoretical, Washington qualifies as a “historical figure”—a Great Man. He acted at decisive moments; his force of character was undeniable; he was the “exponent of the masses” in his recognized leadership role; he (with his army) was the only truly unifying factor in the still-forming new republic. He also forced political actions. He did so as early as 1775 when he took over the Continental Army. In insisting on forming a real army and winning in the field, Washington pushed the Continental Congress toward independence in his demands for supplies, authority, and other support, which led the Congress to issue letters of marque and reprisal, treat with the French, and allow Washington to establish the terms of loyalty in the army—all acts of a sovereign state. In doing all of this he changed the course of history. Grinin and other proponents of the Great Man would certainly agree.
But was the American commander in chief truly “unreplaceable”? Yes, he was. No other patriot in or out of uniform matched the combination of attributes he brought to the Revolutionary cause, and no other patriot made so many critical decisions on behalf of the war effort. As Sidney Hook pointed out, without Thomas Jefferson there still would have been a Declaration of Independence (albeit probably without Jefferson’s graceful phrasing).23 General John Burgoyne was in deep trouble well before Horatio Gates took command of the Northern Army; there is little reason to think Burgoyne would have survived even if Philip Schuyler had retained command. Benjamin Franklin’s diplomacy was brilliant, but France had its own reasons for aiding the rebels and would have done so without Franklin. Perhaps Nathanael Greene was essential for victory in the South, but Greene owed his command to Washington and lacked Washington’s political skills. But without Washington the Continental Army would not have survived as an effective force—and without the army the Revolution was doomed. Washington’s performance between 1775 and 1783 was (and is) a forceful demonstration of individual agency in historical causation—a practical illustration of the Great Man theory. Rappoport, Hook, Grinin, or other theory-minded scholars have produced no better examples.
Thus we end where we began—with James Flexner’s “indispensable man.” Flexner often played fast and loose with facts in his Washington biography,24 although he pointed accurately enough to the commander in chief’s influence. Grinin reminds us, however, “that the problem of the role of an individual in history” is something “every generation” must address for itself;25 and Washington has been (yet again) a classic example in this regard. As Lengel has explained in his engaging Inventing George Washington, generations of Americans have argued over the founding icon’s importance, appropriated his image for any number of purposes (sometimes utterly crass), and labored to draw lessons from his story.26 As a figure of interest and even controversy, Washington has been “indispensable.”
He will continue to be. If continuing scholarship is any indication, however, Washington’s reputation as the towering figure of the Revolution is safe. Robert Middlekauff’s recent (2015) assessment of the general supports this favorable trend: As a general, Middlekauff noted, Washington “overcame enormous obstacles. But he also possessed a grand imagination, a vision of his new country. That vision, often a daring instrument, set him apart and made him the great leader of the Revolution.”27 No doubt Grinin would agree; he could note that Washington qualified for the “indispensable” distinction under all criteria of Great Man theory whereas his contemporaries—notable as many of them were—did not. We already knew this, but it’s always interesting to have another—and theoretical—confirmation.
From Mark Edward Lender, The War for American Independence (ABC-CLIO, 2016); republished with permission