Saturday, July 18, 2015

George Washington, Indispensable indeed

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When one thinks of famous American historical figures, George Washington is probably one of the first that comes to mind.  There are innumerable cities and counties named after him, not to mention the nation's capital and one of its States.  He shows up on our money, has a place on Mount Rushmore, as well as a giant monument in DC. He is known as the "father of our country" and praised as being "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Given that the American Revolution and the founding of the Republic were mass movements involving many people, does Washington really deserve to stand out for the special recognition that he gets?  I argue yes, his deeds really do live up to all the hype.

Washington's Weaknesses

First though, I'd like to point out what George Washington was not.
  • He was not a particularly good orator.  He had a reputation for remaining silent in Congress or at other political events. 
  • He was not a particularly good battlefield tactician.  He lost almost all of the battles in which he fought.  His battle plans were often unrealistic and impossibly complicated,  His subordinates often had to talk him out of crazy schemes of attack that almost certainly would have been suicide. 
  • He certainly was not a man of the people.  He remained aloof from most of his own officers and soldiers, as well as political colleagues.  He saw no problem having living conditions much better than his soldiers in the field.  
  • He was not a strong political leader.  President Washington typically ceded to Congress in setting policy.  What did come out of his Administration was the work of his talented Cabinet members.  
Washington's Assets

Despite these limitations, however, George Washington was an amazing man.  His personal bravery in battle was legendary.  Like many great officers of the time, Washington seemed to be able to ignore gunfire all around him, standing unconcerned in the midst of a firefight.  At the time, most weapons were terribly inaccurate, so being hit was largely a matter of chance anyway.  But Washington had no compunctions about riding into a firefight to rally his men, or trying to prevent a retreat.

Washington also had great personal integrity.  After losing a number of important battles in 1776 and 1777, many in the Army, in Congress, and in the public generally, thought Washington incompetent and in need of replacement.  The Continental Army had several professional officers, including Gen. Charles Lee, who had served in the British Army before the war.  There was a serious movement to replace Washington, who refused to defend his actions in the press or even in most conversations. Typically, he would not second guess or publicly criticize the mistakes of his subordinates, even those gunning for his job.  He let his actions speak for him, and was willing to accept any Congressional decision to replace him.

This is not to say he was never critical.  Washington gave his would-be replacement Charles Lee a prominent command at the Battle of Monmouth in 1778.  A great victory might have convinced Congress to give Lee overall command.   But Lee almost immediately began a retreat after seeing the enemy.  When Washington rode onto the field and saw the retreat, he lost his temper and berated Lee for his cowardice and incompetence (something he almost never did).  Washington took direct control of the soldiers and led a successful attack.

Washington was a strict disciplinarian.  He was not afraid to court marshal officers who shirked their duty or to have soldiers flogged or even executed for bad behavior or desertion. He demanded his army respect civilian rights and property and that they treat prisoners with respect and basic humanity.  Violations of these rules were subject to strict punishments.

Washington's many good qualities made the nearly impossible victory of the Revolution possible.  It is hard to imagine many other leaders acting as he did.  After military success, many expected the Revolution to go the way of many earlier wars where the army finally tires of incompetent politicians and overthrows the government.  That is how Oliver Cromwell came to control Britain over a century earlier.  It is also how Caesar famously took control of Rome.  Washington looked at these historic examples and saw the need to make clear that Congress remained the supreme leader.  Washington's army would always defer to Congress, despite its great incompetence in many areas.

There are many wonderful biographies of George Washington that go into this in far more detail.  For this post, I would like to focus on just two events that could have taken history in a far different direction without the leadership of General Washington.

Washington's Crossing of the Delaware

The first event is generally well known: Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware.  In August 1776, The British invaded New York City.  They easily chased Washington's army through New Jersey and into Pennsylvania.  Washington attempted to stop the British advance by destroying every boat he could find along the Delaware river.  The British settled into winter quarters, convincing most citizens of New York and New Jersey to declare loyalty to the King in exchange for a pardon for their previous treason.  Many quickly agreed.  It seemed clear that a spring campaign would allow the British to move into Philadelphia (where Congress was seated) and take control.  Many people thought this insurrection was pretty much over, and mostly wanted to avoid being hanged for treason at this point.

Even most of Washington's army was ready to go home.  They had not just been beaten, but terribly routed in the battle of New York.  The British humiliated the Americans by blowing hunting calls on their bugles.  The implication being that it was not a real battle.  It was a fox hunt, and the Americans were the foxes.  Most of the terms of enlistment for his army ended on January 1, only a week away.  Since the War seemed clearly lost, there seemed little chance that many would reenlist.  In short, The Continental soldiers would all become civilians again and Washington would be left with nothing.

It was in this desperate context that Washington's officers finally agreed to one of his many crazy schemes to attack the enemy.  The Continental Army would attempt to cross the Delaware River, filled with dangerous ice flows, at night.  This would be a coordinated crossing from three different locations, after which the starving and barefoot soldiers would march through the snowy night to surprise the Hessian soldiers at Trenton, somehow synchronizing this three pronged night attack with little, if any, communication between the different prongs.  The crossing would take place on the evening of December 25, Christmas Day, with the attack scheduled for the following morning.

Like most of Washington's hopelessly complex and demanding strategies, this one fell apart almost from the beginning.  Terrible weather forced two of the three crossings to be called off.  Only the one directly under Washington's supervision succeeded.  Even that one took hours longer than planned. It was already 4:00 AM by the time the army was across the river and could even begin the nine mile march to Trenton.  A surprise night attack would now be impossible.  In addition, powder was getting wet from the storm.  It was unclear if their guns would even work when they arrived for battle.

Washington received word that the two other crossings had failed, meaning he only had a portion of his planned force.  Still, Washington pressed on.  The password selected for the night was "victory or death."  This was quite literal in the sense that if this attack failed, it would be the end of the Continental Army.  I think Washington would have preferred to die in the field rather than see that happen.

Things continued to get worse.  The army struggled to travel the necessary distance.  Two soldiers died from exposure as a result of the difficult march.  Even worse, just before reaching the enemy garrison, the army encountered a group of 50 local patriot militia who had just conducted a raid on the enemy post.  Washington was devastated.  Now the enemy would be on alert and the critical factor of surprise was certainly lost.  Still Washington had no choice but to continue.

It turned out that several bad tidings ended up cancelling each other out.  The delayed start allowed local Tory spies to alert the enemy to the attack.  However, when the militia raid struck and then fled, the Hessians believed that was the attack about which they had been warned and let down their guard. They had been receiving such warnings for weeks.  Given the terrible weather, they saw little chance of any serious attack coming.As a result, Washington was able to carry out the raid as a surprise and capture over 1000 prisoners.

Many leaders would have considered the raid a great success and returned home  But Washington decided to roll the dice again.  After bringing his army and prisoners back to Pennsylvania, Washington crossed the Delaware into NJ a second time to meet a force of 8000 British Regulars led by Gen. Cornwallis to counter the American raid.

Remember, most of Washington's Army had their enlistment's expire at the end of the year.  This second attack began on January 1.  Washington first offered the men a $10 bonus to stay with the army for just one more month.  Since monthly pay as $6 per month, this was not an insignificant amount.  But not a single man stepped forward to continue.  No amount of money was worth the misery and suffering of continuing this winter campaign without the necessary food or clothing.  Then Washington, never much of a speaker, made an impassioned plea to the men.   "My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do, and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay only one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country which you probably never can do under any other circumstances."  At first there was a pause, but slowly the bulk of his army agreed to continue for another month.

Washington and his army determined that they would meet the advancing British force at Trenton and set up defensive lines.  After the first day of skirmishing, however, it became clear, however that the large and well prepared British force would be able to flank the American lines and cut off any possible retreat back to the Delaware River.  The British set up camp that evening within sight of the Continental Army on the other side of a small creek.  Washington decided a direct battle could be disastrous, so he changed plans.  Washington left a few dozen men in camp to keep fires stoked and make as much noise as possible.  While the British army heard what they thought was the entire Continental Army in camp, Washington took his men on a back trail to Princeton where he attacked a British reserve force of about 1200 men, killing about 200 and taking another 300 prisoner.  Perhaps more importantly, the Continental Army was able to capture the British supply wagons, providing his men with a great many needed supplies.  Washington then pulled his Army up to North NJ to await the next British movement.

By this time, the British saw the futility of chasing the Americans around NJ.  They never wanted a winter campaign at all.  The Commanding General Howe ordered Cornwallis to pull back all British troops to Northern NJ near New York City where they stayed in camp for the winter.

These actions were relatively minor victories but were absolutely critical to keeping the American cause alive.  It proved that the Continental Army could defeat the British. Not any leader would have made such a daring attack, especially when the plans seemed to fall apart during the march on the enemy.  Not any commander would have dared to face the British a second time or had the good sense to retreat and then attack the reserve force when a frontal assault likely would have proved fatal.  There was unquestionably a great amount of luck in pulling off the whole campaign, but a good commander knows when to take such chances.  Truly, Washington was indispensable to the success of this critical campaign.

Newburgh Address

The second incident that made Washington indispensable to the success of the Revolution is less well known.  Two years after the battle of Yorktown, in 1783, Britain and the US were still trying to work out a treaty that would end the war.  British troops still occupied New York City, but were making no attempts at offensive actions.  Washington's Continental Army camped a few miles away in Newburgh, NY just in case the British attempted anything.  For the most part, camp life was quiet, settled, and routine.  Everyone realized the War was coming to an end.

The Continental Army was not in a celebratory mood, however.  The Confederation Congress, which did not have the power to tax, could not raise any money to pay the soldiers.  Soldiers were ill clad, ill fed, and unpaid.  Even worse, they had been promised generous pensions or other bonuses when Congress desperately needed them to remain with the Army.  Now that it came time to pay and the army was not needed as badly, Congress looked as if it would break all of its promises to the soldiers.

Officers had sent multiple petitions to Congress begging that it keep its promises.  But these fell on deaf ears.  While soldiers suffered from deprivation in the field, civilians were beginning to thrive in the peacetime economy.  Those who had sacrificed for their country were justifiably upset at their treatment.

On March 10, 1783 an anonymous letter circulated through the Army calling for a meeting to demand action.  The topic was to discuss having the Army march on Philadelphia and demand their promised pay and benefits, at gun point if necessary.  There was also talk of replacing the incompetent Congress with a military leader, preferably Washington, to take charge of the country, much like General Oliver Cromwell had kicked out Parliament and become Lord Protector of England a century earlier after the English Civil War.

Washington put out an announcement objecting to an anonymous meeting and instead allowed a meeting of officers to be scheduled on March 15.  No one expected Washington to participate in this meeting where essentially treason against Congress would presumably be discussed.  But Washington walked in unexpectedly and asked to address the officers.  He gave a short speech recommending continued patience.  He said they should oppose anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood."  Despite their long loyalty to Gen. Washington, these officers seemed largely unmoved and unwilling to change their views.

Washington then produced a letter from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He looked at the letter as if he had trouble reading it, and fumbled with it for some time without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket.  These glasses were new, and few of the men had seen him wear them. He paused, looked to the gathered officers and said: "Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country."  Almost at once this changed the tone of the meeting.

The officers at once understood that their leader Washington had personally sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them.  Many of those present were moved to weep openly.  Despite all that sacrifices that Washington and the rest of his men were forced to make, Washington continued to remain loyal to Congress and would submit to its will. The movement to use any force against Congress ended immediately.  The assembly drafted a resolution expressing  "unshaken confidence" in Congress, and "disdain" and "abhorrence" for the proposals published earlier in the week.

Almost all successful revolutions end up devolving power onto a military strong man.  New revolutionary governments are almost by nature weak and disorganized.  The chaos and anarchy of overthrowing the established order could make even basic government functions difficult.  Typically a single strong man or dictator assumes power in order to make everything work properly.  These tend to be military leaders: Oliver Cromwell or Napoleon Bonaparte are two examples.  George Washington easily could have stepped into this role.  The army was totally loyal to him and had nothing but contempt for the Congress.  With the army's support, no one could have prevented Washington from taking control.

Washington, however, vehemently opposed any such action.  In doing so he helped to ensure the successful transition to a civilian republican government.  We take that for granted today, but at the time it could have so easily gone a different way.  Washington's steadfast loyalty to civilian control of the government may be one of his least mentioned qualities, but one that makes him a uniquely great leader.


Without George Washington, it is impossible to see how the Continental Army could have been guided to its ultimate success against the British Empire.  It is also very easy to see how the successful Army could have moved to a military dictatorship if not for Washington's unflagging devotion to civilian control.  Washington, of course, did reluctantly become President years later under the new Constitution.  But he genuinely seemed to take on that role reluctantly and only because no one in the country trusted anyone but Washington with that much power.  He reluctantly served a second term only because no one at any part of the legal spectrum wanted him to leave.  Doing so, it was feared, would only have led to division and possibly even civil war.  Finally, after his second term, Washington determined to take his leave and become a simple farmer once again.

Washington never shirked his duty and willingly gave up power as soon as he could.  He viewed power as an obligation rather than a reward.  This rare and valuable attitude was essential to the success of the Revolution and the creation of our Constitutional Republic.

Today we commonly see politicians who want to move beyond their Constitutional authority because they see it as the only way of reaching some desired policy goal.  Washington understood the danger of such an attitude and rejected it entirely.  He is truly the indispensable man.

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Monday, July 6, 2015

Happy Independence Day: Which day is it?

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The Fourth of July is the only US holiday that is better known by the date than the actual name: Independence Day.  Most of our holidays get moved conveniently to the nearest Monday.  But not Independence Day.  It is always celebrated on July 4th.

We celebrate July 4th as the day the 13 colonies declared themselves to be free from British rule and to become free and independent States.  The reality, however, is that by July 4, 1776, Independence was already done.

Let's look back at the summer of 1776 to get a better idea of what had happened when.

On March 17, 1776, the British Army was forced to evacuate Boston, leaving all 13 colonies without any military occupation. John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the Continental Congress, had been fighting for a resolution on independence for months.  There was great resistance.  Many thought the public would not support full independence.  Some members of Congress feared that signing such a document would single them out to be hanged as leaders of the treasonous revolt should Britain prevail.

Adams had annoyed most of the delegates by the summer, and did not want the resolution to be seen as his, or even from the Massachusetts delegation.  He wanted a delegate from another State, preferably Virginia, to propose Independence, and lobbied them to make this happen.

Virginia Delegate Richard Henry Lee received approval from the Virginia Convention back in his home State to move for a resolution  "that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."   Adams quickly seconded the motion. That resolution was read before Congress on June 7.

After some discussion, it was decided on June 11 that a committee of five members would work on a draft declaration.  Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, John Adams of Massachusetts, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut and Robert R. Livingston of New York made up the committee.  Jefferson was the youngest and considered to be a fairly good writer.  So he received the task of writing up a first draft.  Congress then went into recess for several weeks while the Committee worked out the language.

Many years later, John Adams reminisced about circumstances of drafting the Declaration.  You have to remember that by the time of this writing, Adams and Jefferson had been political rivals for many years and Adams had always seemed to resent how much credit Jefferson had received for his contribution to the Declaration.  So Adams may have had cause to make himself sound more gracious and involved in the draft than he may have been:

"You inquire why so young a man as Mr. Jefferson was placed at the head of the committee for preparing a Declaration of Independence? I answer: It was the Frankfort advice, to place Virginia at the head of everything. Mr. Richard Henry Lee might be gone to Virginia, to his sick family, for aught I know, but that was not the reason of Mr. Jefferson's appointment. There were three committees appointed at the same time, one for the Declaration of Independence, another for preparing articles of confederation, and another for preparing a treaty to be proposed to France. Mr. Lee was chosen for the Committee of Confederation, and it was not thought convenient that the same person should be upon both. Mr. Jefferson came into Congress in June, 1775, and brought with him a reputation for literature, science, and a happy talent of composition. Writings of his were handed about, remarkable for the peculiar felicity of expression. Though a silent member in Congress, he was so prompt, frank, explicit, and decisive upon committees and in conversation - not even Samuel Adams was more so - that he soon seized upon my heart; and upon this occasion I gave him my vote, and did all in my power to procure the votes of others. I think he had one more vote than any other, and that placed him at the head of the committee. I had the next highest number, and that placed me the second. The committee met, discussed the subject, and then appointed Mr. Jefferson and me to make the draft, I suppose because we were the two first on the list.

The subcommittee met. Jefferson proposed to me to make the draft. I said, 'I will not,' 'You should do it.' 'Oh! no.' 'Why will you not? You ought to do it.' 'I will not.' 'Why?' 'Reasons enough.' 'What can be your reasons?' 'Reason first, you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business. Reason second, I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise. Reason third, you can write ten times better than I can.' 'Well,' said Jefferson, 'if you are decided, I will do as well as I can.' 'Very well. When you have drawn it up, we will have a meeting.'

A meeting we accordingly had, and conned the paper over. I was delighted with its high tone and the flights of oratory with which it abounded, especially that concerning Negro slavery, which, though I knew his Southern brethren would never suffer to pass in Congress, I certainly never would oppose. There were other expressions which I would not have inserted if I had drawn it up, particularly that which called the King tyrant. I thought this too personal, for I never believed George to be a tyrant in disposition and in nature; I always believed him to be deceived by his courtiers on both sides of the Atlantic, and in his official capacity, only, cruel. I thought the expression too passionate, and too much like scolding, for so grave and solemn a document; but as Franklin and Sherman were to inspect it afterwards, I thought it would not become me to strike it out. I consented to report it, and do not now remember that I made or suggested a single alteration.

We reported it to the committee of five. It was read, and I do not remember that Franklin or Sherman criticized anything. We were all in haste. Congress was impatient, and the instrument was reported, as I believe, in Jefferson's handwriting, as he first drew it. Congress cut off about a quarter of it, as I expected they would; but they obliterated some of the best of it, and left all that was exceptionable, if anything in it was. I have long wondered that the original draft had not been published. I suppose the reason is the vehement philippic against Negro slavery.

As you justly observe, there is not an idea in it but what had been hackneyed in Congress for two years before. The substance of it is contained in the declaration of rights and the violation of those rights in the Journals of Congress in 1774. Indeed, the essence of it is contained in a pamphlet, voted and printed by the town of Boston, before the first Congress met, composed by James Otis, as I suppose, in one of his lucid intervals, and pruned and polished by Samuel Adams."

(John Adams, letter to Thomas Pickering, Aug. 6, 1822).

Notice that last paragraph where Adams adds a jab at Jefferson about how unoriginal the Declaration was.  Many of Jefferson's opponents had criticized Jefferson's lack of originality and the fact that he borrowed heavily from other contemporary writings.  Jefferson addresses this criticism by agreeing with it:

"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion."

(Thomas Jefferson, letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825)

On June 28, the Committee submitted the Declaration to Congress for review.  Congress made quite a number of changes.  One of the most famous, or infamous, was the removal of a section condemning the King for the Institution of Slavery:

"He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another."

Many have pointed to the removal of this paragraph as the height of hypocrisy.  Authors drafting a document proclaiming the inalienable rights of man should not remove a passage condemning slavery.  But the reality was that the King had never forced slavery on the colonists.  The colonists had willingly participated.  Condemning the King for making them have slaves just seemed a little too far fetched.

Finally, on July 2, 1776 the Lee Resolution was adopted by 12 of the 13 colonies (New York did not vote, not having approval from its State Convention). It was on this date the Congress agreed to Independence and committed to the break with Britain.  The next day, John Adams excitedly wrote to his wife:

"The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."

(John Adams, Letter to Abigail Adams, July 3, 1776).

Congress continued to make a few minor alterations and deletions on July 2, 3, and the morning of the 4th.  Late in the morning of July 4, Congress approved the final wording of the Declaration.  The Committee  took the manuscript copy to John Dunlap, official printer to the Congress.  Keep in mind that what went to the printer was still a draft copy.  The final engrossed copy had not yet been made.

Mr. Dunlap apparently worked through the night making copies of the Declaration for distribution. On the morning of  July 5, copies to various committees, assemblies, and to the commanders of the Continental troops.

On July 9, the one hold out, New York, finally approved the Declaration when the New York Convention finally voted for approval.  Now all 13 Colonies/States were on board with Independence.

On July 19th, Congress ordered that the Declaration be "fairly engrossed on parchment, with the title and stile [sic] of ‘The unanimous declaration of the thirteen United States of America’ and that the same, when engrossed, be signed by every member of Congress."  The one change here is that the word "unanimous" was inserted because New York's tardy approval finally meant that all 13 delegations approved the declaration.  However, this does not mean every signal delegate approved it, only a majority of each Colonial delegation.  In fact, Pennsylvania had to have two of its opposing delegates to abstain in order to get majority approval from the delegation.

There is some question as to who actually wrote the words on the parchment that we today consider the original Declaration of Independence.  But based on handwriting analysis, most historians believe the draftsman was Timothy Matlack, of Pennsylvania. Matlack was at the time a clerk to the secretary of the Second Continental Congress, Charles Thomson.

With the engrossed version complete, it was presented to Congress for signing on August 2. Several members who had approved the Declaration were absent. George Wythe signed on August 27. On September 4, Richard Henry Lee, Elbridge Gerry, and Oliver Wilcott signed. Matthew Thornton signed on November 19.  Delaware Delegate Thomas McKean did not sign at all in 1776.  It is not clear exactly when he got around to signing, but likely not until 1781.  He had a good excuse for some delay.  After voting for Independence McKean took up command of a militia to march off to defend New York against the British Invasion.  But he was back in Congress by 1777. It is unclear why he did not get around to signing for another four years.

Two delegates, John Dickinson and Robert R. Livingston (who was on the committee to draft the document) never signed the Declaration at all.  Another delegate, Robert Morris, who had opposed independence in debate signed anyway saying "I am not one of those politicians that run testy when my own plans are not adopted. I think it is the duty of a good citizen to follow when he cannot lead."

So the Declaration was not born on a single day.  Even if we ignore the stragglers who signed late, it took nearly two months to go from the initial proposal by Richard Lee in early June to the presentation for signing in August.  July 4 was a significant day since it was the day the language was finally approved.  But even after that, a few words were tweaked a few weeks after that.  Nobody signed on the 4th since there was no document to sign yet.  But July 4 was the date eventually written a the top of the document, so that is the date we remember as Independence Day.

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