How the Revolution Forged Washington
George Washington entered the Revolution as a member of Virginia’s planter aristocracy who still toasted the king. He emerged at its end thinking of himself as American.
In Washington’s Revolution, Robert Middlekauff sets out to tell us not only how George Washington turned companies of rebellious colonials into a revolutionary army and led that army through a seven-year-long war that secured the independence of an historically unprecedented United States of America, but also how that struggle turned Washington the Virginia gentleman, soldier, and planter into “an American” and the 13 colonies-turned-states’ first national leader.
Obviously, we have plenty of histories treating Washington and the Revolution. But I was particularly keen to read what Middlekauff, a distinguished professor emeritus of early American history at the University of California-Berkeley and a former director of the Huntington Library in Los Angeles, had to say about how Washington’s experiences and labors while commanding the forces that “turned the world upside down” shaped his understandings of the struggle, of his fellow citizens-to-be, and of himself—especially since, as an award-winning author of books such as The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals 1596-1728, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, and Benjamin Franklin and His Enemies, he writes not just as a biographer, but also as both a political and an intellectual historian.
Middlekauff himself raised my expectations. In his very brief introductory remarks, he states that Washington “felt the underlying conditions of his time and his life and responded to them in a struggle that affected the Revolution deeply. Washington was always a self-conscious man. He grew during the revolutionary years, but he never lost his self-awareness ... A Virginian when he took over the Continental Army, he found himself transformed into an American by the demands of many British measure before 1775. By the middle years of the war, he, an American, had become something more. As the war had changed, so had he; and as he changed, so also did the war and his conception of it.”
Surely, I imagined, Middlekauff would educate me as to how Washington’s thinking developed as the American struggle itself developed, that is, as it became a fight not against imperial impositions, but for independence and the creation of a democratic republic. And he did teach me a lot, but not about what I was hoping to learn.
Middlekauff has written a fine narrative of how Washington responded to the daunting challenges that he faced, first, as a young officer in the colonial militia and, then, as commanding-general of the American Army from 1775 to 1783. After recounting how Washington became a Virginia officer and planter, Middlekauff relates how the young man’s experience fighting the French and Indians in defense of Virginia’s claims on the colony’s western frontier taught him both how to command men in battle, which included recognizing his own limits and living with defeat (not just when fighting the enemy, but also when he failed to secure a longed-for commission as an officer in the British Army), and how the work of a commanding officer entailed a great deal of time “petitioning” for new recruits and the wherewithal to outfit, supply, and pay them—all of which would prove crucial in the revolutionary conflict to come.
In his ensuing chapters, Middlekauff proceeds to detail how Washington had to not only take up the command of a less-than-professional fighting force composed of democratically-inclined New Englanders and turn it into an army, but also hold it together when, on more than one occasion, all seemed lost; how he had to spend a good deal of his time in the field working to secure the men, money, supplies, and equipment needed from a Congress that had little power and authority over the 13 states that constituted it and whose own members all too often placed the interests of their respective “provinces” above those of the nation they were endeavoring to build; and how he had to repeatedly confront, regularly retreat from, and ultimately defeat—through sheer survival, some bold and daring moves (such as crossing the icy and treacherous Delaware to surprise and beat the Hessians in the Battle of Trenton on December 26, 1776), and a timely alliance with France—the military forces of the greatest empire in world history.
Middlekauff points out, moreover, that Washington did all of that without forsaking his promises and principles. Even as he was constantly tested and tried by the expectations, demands, and denials of far-from-united cohorts of congressional and provincial leaders; by the difficulties of commanding both Continental soldiers and state militiamen (the latter of whom too often came and went as they pleased), by the egos, ambitions, and schemes of his fellow generals (the ugliest case, that of the traitor Benedict Arnold and his scheme to hand over to the British the strategically-situated West Point on the Hudson); and by both the many soldierly inadequacies and the appalling “poverty” of his very own troops—not to mention the discipline and strength of Britain’s armies and navies—Washington continued to subordinate his own “interests” to the interests of the nation and thereby set an example for generations to come. To our good fortune, he not only promoted American nationalism over state provincialism. He also never rejected the principle of civilian command of the military.
Nonetheless, as much as Middlekauff conveys all of that, he never actually articulates how Washington’s ideas progressively changed and developed in the course of the struggle—better said, he never tells us what made Washington think anew or think differently (nor does he tell us when and where Washington came to embrace the principles that he did).
Don’t get me wrong. Middlekauff does not exactly ignore the theme projected in his book’s subtitle, The Making of America’s First Leader. Having made it clear at the outset of the work that Washington was very much a solid member of the Virginia planter elite—marginally so by birth, centrally so by way of his marriage to the propertied widow Martha Dandridge Custis in January 1759—and that he never questioned the legitimacy of Virginia’s hierarchical social order and the slaveholding system on which it was based (because to men such as he that hierarchy and labor system “expressed the natural order of things”), Middlekauff eventually does take up his assertion that the Revolution gave new shape to Washington’s views and sensibilities. Indeed, he proffers a couple of truly compelling observations.
For example, Middlekauff highlights the fact that late in the war Washington came to refer to himself as a “Citizen of the World,” a title that—given the Founders’ shared sense of the world-historic importance of the Revolution—declared that he was not simply a Virginian, but all the more “an American.” He does not claim that the struggle had made Washington an egalitarian: “As a citizen of the world, he had no idea that the principles he and other leaders of the American Revolution espoused would eventually lead to democracy and individualism.” As Middlekauff explains: “A citizen of the world, by his definition, did not conceive of the world stretching to include the mass of men...” Still, Middlekauff says, Washington “did not see it as a closed order, either, one that oppressed men without property or intelligence. His characterization of most men—unthinking men, he called them—as unable to judge well in most matters that served virtue or even affected their own interests was an insight shared by most such citizens of the world.”
Nor does Middlekauff fail to address the haunting question of African American slavery and how the Revolution may well have revised Washington’s view of it. As he presents it, the struggle for liberty made Washington ever more aware of the contradiction between freedom and bondage, though by no means did it make him an opponent of slavery: “Washington recognized early in the conflict with Britain that he and others like himself, slave owners, stood on ironic ground. They claimed liberty for themselves and all the rights of free men while they held hundreds of thousands of blacks in slavery… but he did not disavow such rule.” (Though we should not forget that Washington, to his everlasting credit, would later stipulate in his will that his slaves be set free on Martha’s passing.)
But again, as much as Middlekauff attends to how Washington confronted the trials and tribulations of the war, he never tells us what transpired in the course of the struggle that led him to revise his thinking and understandings of the struggle, of Americans, of himself as an historical actor—he simply states at the outset that he had certain views and, later, that they changed. Please note: The critical and well-crafted lines I just quoted do not appear until pp. 205-206. What happened along the way?
For a start, did it make no critical difference to Washington—who was commissioned by the Second Continental Congress to lead the Continental Army early in the fall of 1775—that the United States declared its independence in July 1776? We know that as late as the winter of 1775 it was Washington’s practice to open dinner gatherings with his officers by toasting King George III. You mean to say that Washington and his officers—hell, that his Continental soldiers and militiamen—did not speak and carry themselves differently when they fought as citizens as opposed to aggrieved Britons? And when they presumably did, did it make no impression on Washington, who was now commanding the Army of the new United States of America? It is inconceivable that Washington was not influenced by how his men—those he had viewed as “unthinking men”—became not just soldiers but citizen soldiers.
Middlekauff does give a nod to the Declaration: “Washington did not acknowledge that Congress had declared independence on July 4. He had expected its coming—the demand for such action by Congress had grown increasingly loud in 1776—and many in the army shared this feeling. On the ninth, officers read the Declaration to the troops standing in formations. There is no doubt that it received the soldiers’ approval.” But Middlekauff leaves it at that.
Middlekauff essentially ignores how ongoing political arguments and ideas influenced Washington’s thinking. It is most shocking that he makes no mention of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, the great revolutionary pamphlet of January 1776, which presented the first public call for outright separation from Britain and the making of a democratic republic. Washington himself stated in a letter from New England to his secretary and friend Col. Joseph Reed that Paine’s pamphlet “was working a powerful change there in the minds of men.” And in this vein, I cannot believe that Middlekauff, for all the attention he gives to Washington’s incessant concern for the “morale” of his men, makes no reference to Paine’s Crisis Papers.
Recognizing the popular force of Paine’s pen, and worried about how the American army was hemorrhaging men in the wake of the loss of New York, Washington himself is said to have encouraged if not directly asked Paine to write the first of those papers as they retreated from Fort Lee across New Jersey in the winter of 1776. And, of course, it was Washington who ordered his officers to read the pamphlet’s words aloud to their troops—starting with “These are the times that try men’s souls…”—before they boarded the boats to cross the Delaware to carry out their surprise attack on the Hessians at Trenton. With good reason—which Washington did not fail to appreciate—American poet and diplomat Joel Barlow would write in the wake of the war, “Without the pen of Paine, Washington’s sword would have been wielded in vain.”
Middlekauff has written a good book. But it could have been a great book.