Magazine | May 4, 2015, Issue

In the Crucible

Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader, by Robert Middlekauff (Knopf, 384 pp., $30)

From 1754 to 1763, Britain and France were locked in a bitter, bloody struggle for control of North America. The conflict, which spread across the globe, could be considered the first world war.

And George Washington started it.

He was 21 and a lieutenant colonel of militia, ordered by the royal governor of Virginia to travel to the Ohio Country and divine French intentions. His little force, supplemented by members of the Iroquois tribe, encountered a small French expedition that had been dispatched to take his measure. The result was a massacre. Washington’s men, and the accompanying Indians, driven more by fear and bloodlust than by any orders of his, killed and scalped dozens of Frenchmen. The young colonial officer wrote later of the episode: “I heard bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”

It is with this rather inauspicious event that Robert Middlekauff, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Glorious Cause — perhaps the finest single-volume history of the American Revolution — begins his excellent new study of Washington’s leadership. He expertly traces the arc of Washington’s career, from his days as a colonial officer driven by vaulting ambition to make his mark and his fortune to his triumphant leadership at the head of the Continental Army. And he sensitively explores the process by which the “provincial” Washington became, over the eight years of the Revolutionary War, “an established citizen of the world.”

It has become customary — even trite — for biographers of Washington to declare their discovery of flesh and blood beneath the marble that has encrusted his legend. (The marble was not long in forming; Middlekauff observes that by the end of the Revolution, Washington was to his countless admirers “a creature apart, a man set above all others, a unique being — not a god, but at the least a chosen instrument of Providence.”) Therefore it is somewhat refreshing that Middlekauff takes Washington’s humanity as a given, and devotes himself more to political development than to psychological exploration. His book is neither a vast, cradle-to-grave biography like Ron Chernow’s, nor a brief character study like Richard Brookhiser’s. Rather, it is a deeply researched and enlightening look at three transformative decades in the life of an indispensable American.

The Father of His Country was the son of a planter; he started life at the margins of the aristocracy. No log cabin for him. But as Middlekauff puts it, “If he was not quite an outsider, he was far from the center of the elite.” The army seemed to him the surest path to distinction, and he threw himself into a military career. His fondest ambition was a commission in the regular army; the future scourge of the redcoats wished nothing more than to don the scarlet himself. Fortunately for America, it was not to be: Washington never won his commission, and could not abide the condescension with which British officers treated him. Stung by the high-handedness of the regular army, Washington resigned from the militia.

He embarked on the career that was his birthright, taking his place among the planter class of the Tidewater. He inherited the estate of his elder half-brother, Lawrence, and immediately set about acquiring more land, some of it adjacent to his Potomac River property and some far away in the West. Marriage to the dowdy but rich Martha Custis secured his fortune; the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army was perhaps the wealthiest man on the continent, secure in his status but aggrieved by the financial depredations of the mother country. His commitment to the revolutionary cause was all the more impressive because he had more to lose than most of his compatriots. And though he was no Napoleon on the battlefield, he was the most impressive leader in the colonies. The British must have regretted never having given him that commission.

Through “his will and his judgment” — which Middlekauff considers his chief qualities — Washington shaped the ragtag rebel soldiers into a formidable fighting force. This took time and trial and error; when he first took up his command in 1775, Washington was shocked by the troops he encountered. Mostly New Englanders, they appeared to him “nasty, dirty, and disobedient.” But before long, Washington would come to admire his men for their loyalty and grit.

Middlekauff makes no extravagant claims for Washington’s tactical abilities, but argues rightly that his “strategic sense proved to be of a very high order.” He knew instinctively that the success of the revolutionary cause depended more on the maintenance of the Continental Army than on the occupation of territory. And it was clear to him that the projection of force on land and sea so far from home stretched British resources to the utmost. As Middlekauff points out, the British had no more experience dealing with a rebellion than Washington had leading an army.

At the heart of the book is an engaging narrative of the Revolutionary War as seen from Washington’s saddle and writing desk. From the early triumph at Boston, which the British evacuated after bombardment by rebel guns on Dorchester Heights, we follow the general and his army through several perilous engagements, and even more strategic retreats. Washington’s ignominious defeat in New York and headlong flight through New Jersey are vividly portrayed, as are his brilliant winter victories at Trenton and Princeton. The latter were vital to the sustenance of national morale, not to mention the confidence of the army; their significance was as much political as military. A war fought in the name of the people cannot succeed without their continued support.

Despite the harrowing winter at Valley Forge, the betrayal of Benedict Arnold, and countless other disasters, Washington and his men persevered until their dramatic march south in 1781. Their French allies had been more consistently reliable on land than at sea, but it was a French naval force that blocked the retreat of General Cornwallis at Yorktown as Washington’s guns relentlessly pounded the British redoubts. It must have been excruciating for Cornwallis to surrender to a force he thought little better than a rabble, but surrender he did. As his men streamed toward Washington’s lines, a band struck up “The World Turned Upside Down.” Two more years would pass before the Treaty of Paris was signed and the war was officially concluded, but Yorktown marked the end of the fighting phase of the conflict. Thereafter, Washington’s war was more about bureaucracy than battles.

The figure that emerges from these pages is quietly superhuman — not in terms of military prowess, but rather in his endless patience. Having pledged his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the cause, he spent eight years wrangling with stubborn, jealous politicians in Philadelphia and in the states. Modern readers prone to lamentations about political dysfunction may be surprised to discover that today’s Congress is a model of efficiency compared with the one with which Washington constantly and fruitlessly pleaded for funds and supplies to pay and feed his long-suffering troops. He revealed to a colleague his fear that the nascent United States was like “a many headed Monster, a heterogeneous mass that never can or will steer to the same point.”

This searing political crucible made the Virginian an American; he would later lend his vast authority and prestige to the Federalist project of binding the loose coalition of states into a stronger and more centralized Union. In Middlekauff’s admiring words, Washington “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.”

We follow the hero, by now the most famous man in the world, back to Mount Vernon and his brief retirement from the public stage. He exulted in being under “my own Vine and my own Fig Tree.” Innumerable tributes from admirers arrived by post, and countless gifts were delivered. Among the latter were “a gold medal studded with diamonds” from the French sailors who helped ensure victory at Yorktown; a “fine fat turtle”; and, from an Irish merchant seemingly determined to demolish his country’s culinary reputation, “Cork Mess Beef” and “a firkin of Ox tongues with roots.” His countrymen revered him; Middlekauff observes that, “had Washington attended all the dinners in his honor, drunk the toasts to his fame, and danced at all the balls” devoted to him, “he would have either died from gluttony or collapsed from exhaustion.”

Fortunately for posterity, he did neither. A few years later, Washington presided over the convention in Philadelphia that would create a new national charter and a presidential office tailored to his regal form. Middlekauff’s book is a thorough, persuasive explanation of why Americans, from the era of the Revolution to the early republic, gloried in having Washington as their leader.

– Mr. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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