The Amerian Revolution and the Idea of America

The Amerian Revolution and the Idea of America

my readers: I am proud of this presentation intended for a general audience. I
spent four full months researching it. Columbia University
Professor of history Eric McKitrick read it and pronounced it “a full success.”




An address by Fleming Rutledge for a
Book Review series in Salisbury, Connecticut, July 25, 2000


 (All quotations, unless
otherwise noted, are from
Angel in the Whirlwind, by Benson Bobrick. Numbers in parentheses refer to the page in Angel. Other quotations are identified by


What do we mean by the American Revolution?

Do we mean the American war?

The Revolution was effected before the war

The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the

—John Adams




            This presentation on the American Revolution begins with
an explanation. It has been advertised as a “book review” and this is accurate
insofar as it has been inspired by the reading of Benson Bobrick’s Angel in the Whirlwind. I became
interested in this book two years ago when I read a review that described it as
the best one-volume history of the Revolution now available. Once I started
reading it, however, I became thoroughly hooked on the subject and expanded my reading
considerably. One of the happy byproducts of my amateur research was a visit to
Mount Vernon
in June, where I discovered in the bookstore a list of the “Ten Best Books
About George Washington,” according to a survey of more than two hundred
American historians. I promptly bought and read several of them.[1] My
remarks this morning, therefore, are not so much a “book review” as they are an
assortment of thoughts occasioned by reading Angel in the Whirlwind and being led deeper thereby into the
history of the birth of the American idea.


            Many of you know more about the American Revolution than
I do. All of us who are of a certain age were schooled in it. In what follows,
I am not attempting to tell you anything new. Rather, I hope to impart some of
my newly discovered enthusiasm for this subject and to say something about why
I think it is so important for this present time, with America the predominant world power
that it is today. In particular, I want to say something about George
Washington, who towers over Benson Bobrick’s book as he towered over American
history and culture for the first hundred years of our national life. For
better or worse, he towers thus no longer. For one thing, a century later his
position in the American story was matched by that of Abraham Lincoln, with
whom he has fittingly shared pride of place until quite recently. Today,
however, as we all know, there have been sweeping changes in the way that we
see ourselves and the important figures in our history. Let me just tell you of
an encounter I had at Mount Vernon.
As I was musing by Washington’s
tomb, I fell into conversation with a man who had come there as part of a band
of volunteers who are trying to get the American Revolution back into the
public school curriculum. With genuine distress, he said that he had personally
seen American history textbooks which today give more space to Marilyn Monroe
and Elvis Presley than to George Washington. Somehow, knowing today’s culture,
I didn’t doubt him.[2]


            David McCullough, author of the much-praised recent
biography Truman, is presently
finishing a biography of John Adams. He is hoping for a resurgence of interest
in the Revolutionary War. A few weeks ago he was quoted in the Times: “A lot of us have
trouble…perceiving [the Founding Fathers] as real. Because of their clothing,
and the wigs, and their mannered way of speaking, they are like characters in a
costume pageant. Also, we’re handicapped because they don’t appear in
photographs…[That is] one reason we find the Civil War more accessible.”
Joseph J. Ellis, author of the recent prize-winning biography of Jefferson, American Sphinx, agrees: “The lack of
realistic images [of the Founding Fathers] means that all we see are paintings
and iconographic renderings that have a celebratory, patriotic, posed
look…[yet] they are, despite what Tom Brokaw says, really our greatest
generation.” David McCullough continues,


The importance of what those people accomplished
cannot be overstated, and under those costumes and wigs they were as vivid and
as capable as any generation in our history. To fight and get shot and to die
like that, to suffer disease and hunger and really horrible conditions, to be
poorly clothed, poorly fed…and to still fight on! They were as strong as any
characters! To have been in Philadelphia in the
first days of July in 1776, knowing that the British had just landed 32,000
troops—a force larger than the population of Philadelphia—in
Staten Island, just a day and a half’s march
away, and to still declare independence? These are characters! These are stories![3]


To be in Philadelphia in the first
days of July 1776 is to marvel. It is to marvel first of all at the
constellation of talent:


Outstanding figures may occasionally emerge in
response to a historical crisis, [but] those who arose to lead the Revolution
surpassed all that might have been hoped for or have since been seen. George
Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Wythe, George Mason, Edmund
Randolph and the Lee family of Virginia; Samuel and John Adams and John Hancock
of Massachusetts; Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson and Robert Morris of
Pennsylvania: John Jay, James Duane and Gouverneur Morris of New York; John and
Edward Rutledge of South Carolina; and more, with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison
and others beginning to step forward into the light. (95)


            The brilliant quality of the state papers prepared by
these men at the First Continental Congress in 1774 was immediately recognized
abroad. William Pitt, Lord Chatham (for whom Pittsburgh is named) arose in Parliament to
declare, “As an Englishman by birth and principles, I recognize to the
Americans their supreme inalienable right…which they are justified in the
defense of, to the last extremity.” Pitt told Benjamin Franklin, who waited
upon him in London on Christmas Day 1774, that the Congress had acted “with so
much temper, moderation, and wisdom that he thought it the most honourable
assembly of statesmen since those of the ancient Greeks and Romans, in the most
virtuous times.” And so we marvel, first, at the sheer intellectual and moral
stature of the assembled patriots.


            Second, we must wonder at the sacrifices they were
prepared to make. These were not adventurers; “generally speaking, they were
men of wealth or professional distinction, socially staid, not likely to be
rebels” (95). Last April when I was visiting Spring Island, South Carolina,
with my husband—who is descended from two Signers—we visited the grave of
Signer Thomas Heyward, located on the sweeping low-country plantation land he
had inherited from his father. Knowing how, today, in my own suburban community
the one thing, indeed often the only
thing that will invariably rouse the citizenry to any sort of public action is
a threat to their property values, I reflected upon the sacrifice that those
men were prepared to make as they came forward to affix their signatures to the
immortal document. They knew the penalty for treason. Their banter as they
waited in line had a mordant edge. John Hancock said “There must be no pulling
different ways; we must all hang together.” “Yes,” famously replied Benjamin
Franklin, “we must all indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all
hang separately.” Standing behind them was Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, “a
large, heavy man, who nervously took up the theme. To the diminutive Elbridge
Gerry [of Massachusetts] he said, ‘I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr.
Gerry, when we are all hanged for what we are doing…I shall die in a few
minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour
or two’ ” (202). From the very beginning they knew what they stood to lose. Nor
was this self-sacrificing spirit diminished by the interminable period of
privation and loss that lay ahead; seven years later, as General Washington
prepared to fire the first shot to signal the siege of Yorktown, Signer Thomas
Nelson of Virginia looked across the water at his personal property, presently
commandeered and occupied by Lord Cornwallis, and urged the commander-in-chief to
begin the battle by bombarding his (Nelson’s) own house.


            We marvel, then, first at the array of brilliance
gathered in Philadelphia
and second, at the bravery with which they pledged their “lives, their fortunes
and their sacred honor.” Third, we are awed by the way they all managed to come
together. The august assemblage was not gathered with one mind and one purpose;
we do not fully realize today the degree of suspicion, misunderstanding and
often animosity that the colonies often felt toward one another. During the
French and Indian War, they had been unable to unite on most issues. Franklin’s famous cartoon
of the era portrayed a snake broken into several pieces and the motto, JOIN OR
DIE. At the Second Continental Congress, the deep differences between the
delegates and their cultures caused them continually to grate against one
another. The New Yorkers disliked the New Englanders; the manners of the South Carolina grandees
and the lordly Virginians annoyed the more democratic Bostonians; the Philadelphia
Quakers had not forgotten their treatment at the hands of the Massachusetts
Puritans. When Patrick Henry declared that he was not a Virginian but an
American, not everyone cheered. John Jay of New York, like many others, was at first a
conservative. When a dispatch arrived announcing the bombardment of Boston, however, John
Adams wrote Abigail that he was deeply moved by the way every man was as upset
as if the capital of his own province had been attacked.[4]


            Every day in summer, I eat my breakfast outdoors beside
the stone marker in North Egremont that commemorates the passage of young,
tubby General (then Colonel) Henry Knox through that spot in the winter of
1775, dragging 59 big guns on 42 sledges 300 miles from Fort
Ticonderoga to the relief of besieged Boston. I find this
thrilling.[5] As
a Virginian who has found a spiritual home in New England and an actual house
in Massachusetts, I am fascinated by the link
between Massachusetts and Virginia. The relations between the two may
be taken as classic illustrations of temperamental and cultural differences at
the outset of the rebellion. Massachusetts
was, of course, the most radical of all the colonies and is rightly considered
the cradle of the Revolution; the British were not wrong in thinking of her as
“the hotbed of sedition.” As the inaugural events on Lexington Green and the Concord North
Bridge were unfolding, it was by no
means certain that the other colonies would come to Massachusetts’ defense. John Hancock and
Samuel Adams were first on the list to be hanged by the British; you will
remember that they were the ones who were hiding in Lexington
when Paul Revere galloped out of Boston.
New England in general was considered by the
British to be the most dangerous region, and a major part of their strategy
throughout the war was to isolate it from the rest of the colonies.


            From the beginning, however, Massachusetts
was supported by Virginia
in almost all her crucial moves. Over and over during the years between the
inflammatory Quartering Act of 1763 (requiring Americans to house British
soldiers) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, we see
the name of Virginia linked with that of Massachusetts. Down in Williamsburg, the Raleigh Tavern witnessed astonishing
scenes as the members of the Virginia House of Burgesses—Washington,
Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Richard Henry Lee,
and so forth (imagine it!)—moved their place of meeting from the Capitol to the
Apollo Room. Daniel Webster was to say later that “The tavern was the headquarters
of the Revolution.” Love of taverns was one thing, at least, that Virginia and Massachusetts
had in common; otherwise, they hardly seemed to be on the same planet. Massachusetts was Puritan, with an “ordered,
morality-driven” view of liberty; Virginia
was Anglican and English, with an emphasis on the right not to be ruled by
others. Massachusetts was democratic, Virginia was oligarchic.
The Virginians lived in relative luxury enjoying the finer things of life, in
contrast with the famously frugal “Yankees” (already called that by
Southerners). The New England colonies were “nascent republics”; Virginia, with its royal
governor, was “a kind of colonial monarchy” (67). Massachusetts
life was based upon towns; Virginia
featured enormous shires and parishes where the great planters “enjoyed a kind
of eminent domain.” Yet the two colonies made common cause early, so that, in
the event, John Adams (together with his cousin Samuel) was able to win the
consent of the Continental Congress to George Washington’s appointment as
commander-in-chief by arguing not only that he had the qualifications but also
that the Congress needed to look beyond New England if its great enterprise was
to succeed.


when he was appointed to the command at the age of forty-two, had no idea of
the magnitude of the difficulty before him. When it was discovered that the
gunpowder available to him in Boston
amounted to a grand total of nine rounds per man, he sat motionless behind his
desk for half an hour, unable to speak. Looking back years later, he wrote,


It was known that the resources of Great Britain
were, in a manner, inexhaustible, that her fleets covered the ocean and that
her troops had harvested laurels in every quarter of the globe. Not then
organized as a nation, or known as a people upon the earth, we had no
preparation. Money, the nerve of war, was wanting. The sword was to be forged
on the anvil of necessity.”[6]


            Throughout most of the war Washington had to pretend that he had many
times more men and supplies than he really had, which exposed him to constant
criticism for overcaution and inaction from those who did not understand the
true situation. Furthermore, a romantic view of the militia prevailed which Washington had to
overcome in order to build a real fighting force. The Massachusetts Minutemen
deserved their reputation, but they were the elite.[7]
Most ordinary militiamen would drop their rifles and run at the first sight of
a British bayonet. Washington’s
generals had trouble with militia all throughout the war, until they learned
how to deploy them.[8]
For seven years their leader had to struggle with the problem of short-term
enlistment. Our mental image of the Revolutionary troops is that of valiant
farmers leaving their ploughs in the field to answer the call of freedom, and
that did indeed happen in the early days of Lexington and Concord; as time wore
on, however, the first flush of glamour wore off, as Washington knew it would,
and it became more and more difficult to recruit troops. No sooner would Washington train his men
than they would finish their terms and go home. He was often near desperation:


Search the vast volumes of history through, and I
much question whether a case similar to ours is to be found; to wit, to
maintain a post against the flower of the British troops for six months
together, without powder, and at the end of them to have one army disbanded and
another to raise within the same distance of a reinforced enemy….How it will
end, God, in his great goodness, will direct. I am thankful for his protection
to this time. (160)


            It is often noted that the Founding Fathers, having been
deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, were not Trinitarian Christians.[9] It
is certainly true that Jefferson, for
instance, was some sort of Unitarian and that John Adams did not think at all
like his devoutly Puritan forebears. In reading the letters of the time,
however, one is struck by the number of references to the theological concept
of Providence.
The patriots did not think in terms of luck or good fortune, but rather of
divine protection and guidance during the Revolution. Even Benjamin Franklin
had “a Biblical sense of destiny” (493), and later wanted an image of the
deliverance at the Red Sea on the Great Seal of the United States so as to
acknowledge God’s guiding hand. Throughout the war, numerous days of prayer and
fasting were declared, and it was recommended to all officers and soldiers that
they “diligently attend divine service” (146). After the Battle of Monmouth in
1778, the Congress went to church in a body “to return thanks for the divine
mercy in supporting the independence of these states” (347). Following the
climactic victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781, services of thanksgiving
were held in all the different brigades and divisions of the army “in
recognition of so many reiterated and astonishing interpositions of Providence”
From the beginning, Benson Bobrick writes,


There was…an overriding and mystical feeling of
providential cover…As John Page, a Virginia statesman, put it rather
beautifully [quoting from the book of Ecclesiastes, in a letter to Jefferson],
“God preserve the United States. We know that the Race is not to the swift nor
the Battle to
the Strong. Do you not think an Angel rides in the Whirlwind and directs this
storm?” (202)


            What I hope to convey here is the sense of wonder that
one experiences in reading about the American Revolution. At almost every turn
there is cause for amazement and awe that the whole effort did not come apart.
We forget, I think, how extraordinarily difficult it was to hold the different
elements together, There was a great deal of dissension, rivalry and snobbery.
In an unguarded moment the fastidious George Washington wrote to his cousin Lund that the New
Englanders in his command were “an exceedingly dirty and nasty people” (147).
John Adams privately agreed that his New England
brethren “want art and address [and the] exterior and superficial
accomplishments of gentlemen,” but he stoutly defended them nevertheless,
saying that “in solid abilities and real virtues, they excel any people upon
this continent” (147). Washington
soon repented of his indiscretion and did not make the same mistake again, but
all through the war he had to contend with regional animosities in the army.
Pennsylvania Dutch, Green Mountain Boys, Allegheny woodsmen, Marblehead
fishermen and New Jersey
farmers, not to mention free blacks, were a very ill-assorted lot who did not
necessarily see the conflict in the same way and often regarded each other with
suspicion or outright hostility. Add to this the almost unbelievable hardships
of winter quarters and forced marches without proper shoes, nourishing food,
dry powder, adequate blankets or timely payment with real money (as opposed to
worthless Continental dollars), and the persistence of the Continental Army
really does seem miraculous. The hardships of Valley Forge are legendary, but
the winter of 1779-80 spent at Morristown,
New Jersey
was just as bad. This
spring I paid a visit to Washington’s Headquarters
at Morristown,
part of the National Park Service, and found it remarkably evocative. The
winter that he spent there, with Mrs. Washington
at his side sharing the dreadful conditions, featured the worst weather in
living memory. There were 28 snowstorms, and once it snowed for four days
straight. The Hudson river and New
harbor froze solid. “We were absolutely,
literally starved,” wrote one soldier; he reported that they were eating shoe
leather, bark and twigs, as well as a beloved pet dog. Yet they held on. One of
aides later wrote, “I cherish those dear ragged Continentals, whose patience
will be the admiration of future ages” (393).


            We are not to think that the average foot soldier endured
all this for some abstract philosophical ideal of freedom. One historian is
probably right in emphasizing simple peer pressure, or what we might call the
buddy system, as the glue that held them together.[11]
As the war went on, ignoble passions such as revenge undoubtedly played their
part. At the same time, however, because of the nature of the patriot
leadership, a new thing was coming into being. Speaking for myself, the more I
read, the more I began to feel that I was being engaged by something much
larger than a roaring good historical narrative. It seemed to me that something
far greater was taking hold. I found a sentence in Thomas Fleming’s account of
the signing of the Declaration of Independence that expresses this:


became a birthright that every person could claim, no matter what any
government said. In that great leap forward, The United States became more than
a country: it became an idea, a
heritage open to people of every race and creed.


            It became an idea.
What was—what is—the American idea?


            One of the most complex aspects of this subject is the
relationship of the American idea to the colonial inheritance from Great Britain.
We may well be bemused by the subtleties of this connection. The colonists were
fervent in their protestations of affection and attachment to the mother
country almost up to the very eve of the Revolution. As late as 1775, a
resolution drafted by Thomas Jefferson read, “we mean not to dissolve that
union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us.”[12]
It is therefore rather surprising that, when the moment came in July 1776, the
decision to sever the connection was so decisive and so final. The roles played
in the French and Indian War were reversed; the French had become the valued
ally and the British were suddenly the hated enemy. It is a little hard to
imagine today, since many Americans are now ardent Anglophiles and tend to
dislike the French. We have long become accustomed to our “special
relationship” to Great
. It has therefore been both amusing
and instructive to see the reaction on both sides of the Atlantic
to the movie The Patriot, in which
the British come off as villains of the deepest dye and Colonel Banastre
Tarleton, in particular, as worse (according to one reviewer) than Vlad the


            It is not possible to do justice to this subject in the
brief compass of this amateur address, but we can offer a few basic
impressions. The American Revolution was born from the English concept of
liberty. The great Pitt recognized this immediately; “The Americans are the
sons, not the bastards, of England
(78). The term “Sons of Liberty” was coined, not in Boston, but on the floor of
the House of Commons by Irish-born Colonel Isaac Barré, who jumped to his feet
and warned, “Remember I this day told you so, that same spirit of freedom which
actuated these people at first [in the French and Indian War] will accompany
them still.”[13]
The remarkable unwritten constitution of England was the mother of these
Sons of Liberty. Daniel Boorstin has summarized its salient features: trial by
jury, due process of law, representation before taxation, habeas corpus,
freedom from attainder, the independence of the judiciary, and the rights of
free speech. The House of Commons had obtained from the King in 1678 the
recognition of four principles: no taxation without consent of Parliament, no
imprisonment without cause, no quartering of soldiers on subjects, and no
martial law in peacetime (64). On the very threshold of the Revolution,
therefore, Thomas Jefferson could declare that he “would rather be in
dependence upon Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation upon earth”
(64), and Paul Revere could proudly say that his convictions were “the
birthright of an Englishman” (77).


            Men like John Adams were acutely aware of their debt to England and the fact that America was taking British
liberties to a higher plane.


Americans will not endure in silence the slow
erosion of those freedoms which make them proud of the name of Englishmen…Let
it be known that British liberties are not the grants of princes or
parliaments, but…inherent and essential…even before a Parliament existed.


            The most dramatic embodiment of Adams
convictions in this regard that could possibly be imagined is his astonishing
decision to defend the British soldiers who had fired on the crowd in the
so-called “Boston Massacre.”[14]
It was a brave decision, resulting in much opprobrium from his Boston neighbors. He won
acquittals for them all. A sequel to this courageous act took place some years
later when Adams’ son John Quincy Adams
defended the mutineers from the slave ship Amistad.
These two examples speak volumes about what the American Revolution would come
to mean, and illustrate most vividly the far-reaching commitment to human
rights that lay only half-sleeping within the emerging American idea. We will
return to this theme again.


            In July 1775, eight of the thirteen colonies voted to
adopt a moderate resolution to give England one more chance to merit
American loyalty. The five who voted against further conciliation were
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island—and Virginia. What
Virginians and New Englanders had in common, despite their great differences,
was a fierce pride in their rights as Englishmen. “Resolved,” cried Patrick
Henry in the House of Burgesses (1765),


that this first adventurers and settlers of this,
his majesty’s colony…brought with them and transmitted…all the privileges,
franchises and immunities that have at any time been held, enjoyed, and
possessed, by the people of Great Britain…

Resolved, therefore, that the General Assembly of
this colony have the…exclusive right and power to lay taxes and impositions
upon the inhabitants of this colony; and that [every other attempt] has a
manifest tendency to destroy British as well as American freedom.


            The next day, Patrick Henry delivered the fiery speech in
which he denounced the name of George III, followed by shouts of “Treason!”
from around the room. Thomas Jefferson, who was a student at William and Mary
at the time, was standing in the doorway. “I well remember the cry of treason,”
he later wrote, “and the presence of mind with which [Mr. Henry] closed his
sentence.” (“If this be treason, make the most of it!”) (73)


            The problem with British liberties was not their conception.
It was the way they worked out in actual practice. In England, only one person in ten
owned land. In America,
it was nine out of ten. In England,
out of a total population of 8 million, only 215,000 could vote. The system, in
other words, was firmly in the grip of the aristocracy. Moreover, because of
the notorious “rotten borough” system and other abuses, the imbalances between
population and representation were extreme. American visitors to England
were appalled by the amount of corruption involved in elections.[15]
There was indeed a strong tradition of liberty in England, but in practice it was not
the prerogative of everyone, only of the ruling class. Americans therefore came
to see themselves, not England,
as the true embodiment of republican virtue.[16]
At the beginning of the war, a New England
recruit sought to explain in simple terms why he and his compatriots were
fighting the British. “We had always governed ourselves,” he said, “and we
always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”[17]
This combination of simplicity, stubbornness and utter devotion to the
self-evident idea of independence is surely one way of stating the American


            Illumination into the American character sometimes came
from unexpected sources. During the dreadful winter at Valley
, in spite of the suffering there was a rebirth in the camp.
A German officer of great ability named Steuben arrived at the Washington’s
headquarters and offered his services. He pretended to be a baron, which he was
not, but if Washington
saw through the ruse, he didn’t care. He could see that Steuben’s military
skills were rare, and he knew he needed them. After being drilled by Steuben
for two months, the downtrodden Continentals had been transformed into a crack
European-style fighting force. The men emerged from their winter privations
confident and recommitted. Steuben had a kind of genius for adapting Prussian
methods to the American personality. He wrote that the Americans were not to be
compared to the Prussians, Austrians, or French. “You [European officer] say to
your soldier, ‘Do this,’ and he does it; but here [in America] I am obliged to say, ‘This
is the reason why you ought to do that’; and then he does it.” (334)


            The Civil War, with its enormous and tragic dimensions,
seems to be the passion of many Americans right now. It is surely a good thing
when we are interested in any aspect of our national history. Many historians
and other students of America
agree, however, that it is the Revolutionary War, not the Civil War, that tells
us who we are, that forged our character, that solidified our ideals and that
continues to inspire hope in people all over the world. Yesterday’s New York Times reported that forty per cent of New York City’s population is now
foreign-born. “Boy, that is some number—wow, wow!” said the author of Beyond
the Melting Pot
, Senator Dan Moynihan. “It’s an enriching experience for
us. It’s wonderful—I mean, we have to think of it that way. If we think of it
any other way, it won’t be wonderful.”[18]
This little capsule is a classic illustration of the way that the Great
American Idea competes with lesser ideas in our minds and hearts. The Senator’s
first instinct is to be exuberant and magnanimous: “It’s wonderful.” His second
thought, implicit but clearly present, is, maybe it won’t be so wonderful.
Maybe it will cause all kinds of problems. Maybe we don’t want so many
foreigners crowding us. So he catches himself, reiterating the American creed
in the American spirit: “I mean, we have to think of it that way”—as wonderful—because
if we don’t, if we think of it any other way, we will lose our identity as a
nation of liberty and justice and opportunity for all.


            Gordon Wood, historian at Brown, refers to the Revolution
as “the most radical and the most far-reaching event in American history.” His
thesis is that it became much more radical than any of the Founding Fathers


[The idea of equality] became so potent for
Americans because…ordinary Americans came to believe that no one, in a basic,
down-to-earth and day-in-and-day-out manner, was really better than anyone
else. That was equality as no other nation has ever quite had it.[19]


Edmund Morgan expands


The Revolution did revolutionize social relations.
It did displace the deference, the patronage, the social divisions that had
determined the way people viewed one another for centuries and still view one
another in much of the world. It did give to ordinary people a pride and power,
not to say an arrogance, that have continued to shock visitors from less
favored lands. It may have left standing a host of inequalities that have
troubled us ever since. But it generated
the egalitarian view of human society that makes [those inequalities] troubling

and makes our world so different from the own in which the Revolutionists had
grown up. [20]


            When the British laid down their arms in 1782, it was
merely, as Bobrick writes, “the end of the beginning.” It would be seventy
years and more before the nation as a whole began to think deeply about what
was meant by “All men are created equal.” It would be more than a hundred years
before women got the vote. It would be more than one hundred and eighty years
before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would be signed. There was a long way to go
from Philadelphia
1776. But the seeds were planted, and they continue to grow. Two days ago,
there was an obituary in The New York
for a psychiatrist named Josephine Martin who had offered her
services to the students working to register voters in Mississippi in the
darkest hours of the Civil Rights movement. Here is a selection from the


On July 4, 1963, she and her husband went to Baltimore to participate
in a demonstration against an amusement park that refused to admit blacks. They
spent the night in jail. “What better way to spend the Fourth of July than to
go to jail in the war for independence for millions of Americans whose freedom
from tyranny did not come with the Declaration of Independence in 1776?” she
wrote at the time.


            Thus the American Revolution continues to produce
children in a manner that no one in Philadelphia
could possibly have foreseen. The angel continues to ride in the whirlwind.


            But let us return to Benson Bobrick’s narrative. It is
filled with remarkable characters, but George Washington takes center stage. It
is he that I want to consider for a few minutes.


            It is sometimes said that Washington is boring because he is too good
to be true. No one has ever been able to nail him with anything equivalent to Franklin’s licentiousness, Hamilton’s
volatility, Adams’ vanity, or Jefferson’s
slave mistress. Perhaps because of this, and also in reaction to the cult of Washington that prevailed for so long, it has now become
the fashion, even among historians who admire Washington, to dwell upon his deficiencies
and limitations. Of course he had them; all men do. It seems to me, however,
that in an age when young people seem to think that the likes of Britney Spears
and Leo DiCaprio are fit models for emulation, we are depriving generations of
Americans of an example to respect and admire, a figure of towering integrity
and selflessness to encourage us to a larger view of human endeavor.


            There are numerous vignettes in Bobrick’s book in which
we glimpse something of Washington’s
strengths. We can only sample them here. We see him first as a very young
lieutenant in the French and Indian War, deeply touched by the sufferings of
civilians (1755):


The supplicating tears of the women and moving
petitions of the men melt me into such deadly sorrow that I solemnly
declare…I could offer myself willingly a sacrifice to the butchering enemy,
provided that would contribute to the people’s cause.” (24)


few years later, as the dispute with Great Britain was heating up
(1769), we find him as a civilian, a gentleman farmer, wholeheartedly engaged
in the opening events of the struggle for American liberties. Writing to George
Mason, he says,


That no man should scruple or hesitate a moment in
defense of so valuable a blessing is clearly my opinion, yet arms should be the last resource

Our all is at stake, and the little conveniences
and comforts of life, when set in competition with our liberty, ought to be
rejected, not with reluctance, but with pleasure. (83)


            His entire subsequent life was a living example of these
convictions: bloodshed as a last resort, yet unhesitating commitment should it
be necessary; cheerful sacrifice of comfort and private privilege; devotion to
the public welfare despite cost to self. Unlike many military men, he did not
love the battlefield for its own sake. He was truly happiest when he was at
home at his beloved Mount Vernon.
Yet he was ready if need be. “Ought we not,” he wrote to a friend as the war
clouds gathered, “put our virtue and fortitude to the severest test?” (91) At
the Virginia Convention in 1774, he declared himself ready to raise a thousand
men, to provide for them at his own expense, and march with himself at their
head for the relief of Boston


            We get an unforgettable glimpse of Martha Washington at
this time. As her husband (aged forty-two) set out on horseback for Philadelphia, he was
accompanied by Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton. Pendleton later described
the scene: Mrs. Washington
stood at the door and said, “God be with you, gentlemen!”


She seemed ready to make any sacrifice, and was
very cheerful, though I know she felt very anxious. She talked like a Spartan
mother to her son on going to battle. “I hope you will all stand firm; I know
George will.”


a letter to a relative, Martha Washington confided:


Yes, I foresee consequences, dark days and darker
nights, domestic happiness suspended, social enjoyments abandoned; property of
every kind put in jeopardy by war…; neighbors and friends at variance, and
eternal separations on earth possible. But what are all these evils when
compared with the fate of which the [closing of the port of Boston]
may be only a threat? My mind is made up; my heart is in the cause; George is
right; he is always right; God has promised to protect the righteous, and I
will trust Him.” (93)


            Abigail Adams she was not, but it would scarcely be
possible to overestimate the contribution that this small, unassuming woman
made to the emergence of the United
States of America


            George Washington arrived in Philadelphia (1774) to find the First
Continental Congress assembled. Even in a crowd that included Jefferson, both
Adamses, Henry, Franklin, Hancock and the rest, he stood out:


Perhaps the most enigmatic figure [at the
Congress] was George Washington, who was reserved in his manner almost to
silence but with a magnetic presence that obliged everyone to attend to his
counsel, and to turn and regard him when he walked into a room. “He is a
soldier, a warrior,” one delegate noted, yet “a modest man, sensible, speaks
little, in action cool…” (96)


            Even at this early stage, Washington was aware that he created a
powerful effect, and he was determined to put that power to right use. He was
already cultivating his capacity for leadership, sensing that he and the
American cause were bound up together by destiny, or as he often said, by Providence. He had learned
to control his volcanic temper, and, as historian Francis Parkman wrote, was to
achieve “the kind of mastery over others which begins with mastery over self”
(128). Abigail Adams, recognizing his power, wrote many years later that Washington had “so happy
a faculty of appearing to accommodate & yet carrying his point that if he
was not really one of the best-intentioned men in the world he might be a very
dangerous one.”[22]


            In The Genius of
George Washington
, Morgan elaborates this point. Washington’s uniqueness was in his right use
of power. In order to accomplish this he had always to maintain a very fine
balance. There are many anecdotes that illustrate how, though he was essentially
modest about himself, he tolerated no disrespect for his position as commander.
For instance, when the British Admiral Lord Howe sent him a message addressed
to “George Washington, Esq.” (a deliberate omission of the title “General”), he
refused to accept it. A week later, Howe sent another letter, this time
addressed to “George Washington, Esq.,
., etc.” The messenger tried
to persuade Washington
that the etceteras “meant
everything.” “Indeed,” said Washington
with a pleasant smile, “they might mean anything,” and he returned the letter
without breaking the seal. (207) A man capable of being this imperious might
easily have become intoxicated with self-importance. With Washington it was the opposite. The power
that he sought, exercised and nurtured 
was not for himself. His every movement was directed toward the cause of
his country.[23]
Most of those who have written about Washington
have noted the importance of his character in this regard. His good name and
reputation were of the highest importance to him. He had aligned himself with
the emerging idea of America,
and any defect of character on his part would reflect badly on the great cause.
He was fiercely protective of his reputation, not so much for himself as for
the future of the country, for somehow he knew that the two were to become one.[24]


selflessness has been stressed many times in many ways by observers who have
noted that although he was unparalleled in his understanding of power, in the
end he walked away from it. Benson Bobrick writes, “The surrender of his sword
[to the Congress] was a momentous act, establishing a precedent for the
subordination of military to civilian authority, no matter how great that
military power was.” (479)[25]
We should remember George Washington and give thanks, when we see the
photographs of the Latin American dictators strutting in their uniforms. More
important, we should take to heart the implications of our government being
covertly linked, as we so often have been, with the ugly activities of these


            It is fashionable today to make fun of the Washington legends and
iconographic portraits. Yet there is truth in them, even the cherry tree story,
for Washington
really was a man who hated lies and abhorred dishonor. The famous painting in
the Metropolitan Museum, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is easily
ridiculed for its pieties and inaccuracies, but it is no exaggeration to say
that the Crossing occurred at the lowest point of the war, that almost everyone
considered the Continental army finished, that Washington was under attack from
some of his own fellow officers, that for months he had been retreating before
the British advance. As one of Washington’s
aides wrote him, the situation was “desperate and hopeless…our affairs are hastening
fast to ruin.”[26]
We forget that Washington
had done nothing up to this point to command the respect of the British; prior
to the opening of the Revolution he had not been in the field for seventeen
years, and he had done nothing but retreat since the Battle of Long Island.
There is a sense, therefore, in which the painting of the Crossing does not
lie: the daring move of George Washington to turn his demoralized, exhausted
troops around in the dead of winter in the middle of the night was one of the great
military turning points of history, and the picture gives us an unforgettable
image of the dauntless American commander. Many dark days lay ahead, but never
again would the Continentals find themselves “in the final stages of
disintegration” as they were in Pennsylvania
that December.[27]


has been described as aloof, even cold. Reserved he certainly was; perhaps it
was partly shyness, but most biographers think that his reserve was
deliberately cultivated because it was necessary for command.[28]
Cold and emotionless he certainly was not. There are numerous accounts of his
being in tears, especially when he said goodbye to his officers at Fraunces
Tavern and when he resigned his commission to the Congress at Annapolis. Once, a French general spoke to
him of Lafayette’s prowess and later described
the General’s reaction: “Washington
blushed like a fond father whose child is being praised. Tears fell from his
eyes, he clasped my hand and could hardly utter the words: ‘I do not know a
nobler, finer soul, and I love him as my own son.’” (370) This is hardly the
deportment of a cold man. The warmth of some of Washington’s friendships is well illustrated
by a codicil in the will of Benjamin Franklin.


My fine crab-tree
walking-stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of a cap of
liberty, I give to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If
it were a scepter, he has merited it and would become it.[29]


            But Washington, as Franklin well knew, wanted
no scepter. He had given his entire life, not for personal glory, but for the
American nation. As Marcus Cunliffe writes in his widely respected book George Washington: Man and Monument, in
the end he had no private life left at all. He bore the burden that was
required of him as General and then as President, to disappear as a private
individual into an ideal. “His very strength resided in a sobriety some took
for fatal dullness…[but] in his own person [he] proved the soundness of America.”


            This assessment of Washington
is known only to specialists today. In New Orleans
a few years ago, the School Board voted to rename the George Washington
Elementary School
its policy opposed retaining names of schools named for slave owners. The fact
that such a thing could happen is, ironically, a result of the very Revolution
that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and other slave owners made
possible. Perhaps we should not blame the School Board of a city that has such
serious racial problems. A better but more difficult policy, however, would be
to commit ourselves to a new way of teaching about the Founding Fathers and
Mothers and the Revolution itself. Maybe school children should have a chance
to see videos of Barbara Jordan, the noble black Congresswoman whose eloquence
rivalled that of Patrick Henry, interpreting the Constitution for us all during
the Watergate trials. A further irony is that her beloved Constitution was
framed (as she well knew) by James Madison—a slave owner. The African slave
system was one of the greatest evils the world has ever known, and we are still
only beginning to realize what we have done. But we cannot judge men and women
of the eighteenth century by the standards of today. We can honor them for
risking everything they had and life itself in order to win that Revolution
that formed the matrix out of which the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil
Rights Movement would ultimately arise.


            As for George Washington himself, he came to see that
slavery was an abomination. Why was he having so much trouble with the slaves
at Mount Vernon?
Was it because they were shiftless and lazy, ignorant and insubordinate? No, he
concluded, it was because they were
. They did not possess the ambition which was a driving force of his
own life, to establish a good name, because slaves were not allowed to have any
name at all. As early as 1778 he was already trying to figure out a way to free
his slaves without losing Mount
. At length, in the last year of his life, he
rewrote his will, having realized that he did not want to leave behind an
estate that depended on slavery. “Though he had poured much of his inner self
into this place, he was now preparing in effect simply to let it all go…All
his slaves were to be freed, and provision was made for the support of any who
were either too old or two young to support themselves.”[30]
Of all the slave-holding Founders, Washington
was the only one who not only spoke and wrote against slavery but actually
acted upon his growing convictions that the noble cause for which he had risked
everything required also this final sacrifice.


            Last week, The New
York Times Book Review
featured a new book by Norman Podhoretz, My Love Affair With America. The
reviewer has this to say:


America, Podhoretz came to realize, was different
from all the other countries in which the Jews had lived during their long
diaspora because it had accepted the Jews as had no country before
it…{Podhoretz] makes a convincing case for this particular form of American
exceptionalism. He cites the Puritans’ strong identification with the Biblical
Hebrews and points out that for early Americans, many of them religious
outcasts themselves, the embrace of religious tolerance extended even to the
country’s non-Christian inhabitants. [He refers to] George Washington’s
remarkable letter to a Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island:
“May the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to
merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants.” In Podhoretz’ America,
the Jews have indeed found the promised land they have long sought.[31]


            In conclusion, then: The American Revolution continues.
Instead of devouring its own children like the French and Russian Revolutions,
it has produced more children: the abolition of slavery, woman’s suffrage,
immigrants from around the world, full citizenship for Jews, the Civil Rights
movement. Further afield, the American idea has empowered the struggle for
freedom all over the globe—the Solidarity uprising in Poland, the
anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, the struggle for democracy in Latin
America, the movement for universal human rights. Many great tasks lie before
us if the United States is to live up to the ideals of George Washington:
better treatment of prisoners, which he insisted upon; the abolition of the
death penalty, which he came to abhor and used only when his back was against
the wall; an end to the incarceration of Haitians or other immigrants without
cause; care for the weaker members of our society; less emphasis on lotteries and
more on honest work: campaign funding reform; an end to covert support of
dictatorships, and many other things. I believe we can find courage and
strength from reading about the War for American Independence and in
contemplating the lifelong dedication of a George Washington. Most of all I
believe we may find from such study a renewed zeal for self-dedication and
serving the public good. I close with these words of the British scholar Marcus


George Washington died knowing that America
was intact, that he as much as any person had assisted in its formation, and
that while his own sands ran out, time was still on the side of his country. It
was an achievement of far more permanent effect than most in history….


How much of the credit is due to him alone we
cannot say; in the final analysis the question is irrelevant. He had become so
merged with America
that his is one of the names on the land, the presence in the air. Useless for
his biographers to try to separate Washington from the myths and images
surrounding him…the cherry tree, Cincinnatus at the plough, the grinding ice
in the Delaware, the imaginary Indian chief at the Monongahela who declared
that no mortal bullet could dispatch George Washington. None can. The man is the monument; the monument is America. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.[32]







John R. Alden, George Washington: A Biography. (Baton
Rouge: Louisiana State           University
Press, 1984). Not my favorite.


Bobrick, Benson. Angel
in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution
(New York: Simon
& Schuster, 1997). Highest recommendation.


Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument. (Mount Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies’
Association, 1998. Originally published 1958.) Superb in every way. Short and
highly readable but deeply scholarly.


Howard Fast, The Crossing. (Newark:
New Jersey
Historical Society, 1984. Originally published 1971.) Narrative of the crossing
of the Delaware.
Purple prose, but gripping and well researched.


Thomas Fleming, Liberty! The
American Revolution
(New York: Viking Penguin, 1997). A beautiful
illustrated history of the Revolution. Rather flat writing style, but
invaluable for voluminous information, lavish illustrations, reader-friendly


James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man. (Boston: Back Bay            Books,
Little, Brown and Company, 1969). One-volume condensation by author of his
George Washington
. Very engaging and lively.


Douglas Southall Freeman,
George Washington: A Biography. 7
Vols., (New York: Scribner’s, 1948-1957). Still the standard-setter.


Eric McKitrick, “Washington the Liberator,” The New York
Review of Books
, 11/4/99.

Moving treatment of Washington’s attitude
toward slavery.


Edmund S. Morgan. The Genius of George Washington. (New
York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1980). Highest recommendation.

The Meaning of Independence (New
York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978) Essays on John Adams, Jefferson, Washington.
Adams essay especially recommended.

—”The Second American
Revolution,” The New York Review of Books, 6/25/92.


Video cassettes:


The Revolutionary War, three cassettes, narrated by Charles Kuralt.
(The Learning Channel: Discovery Communications, Inc., 1995). Recommended.

The Crossing (A & E Home Video). Based on the Howard Fast book. Jeff Daniels
miscast as Washington,
but genuinely thrilling and memorable. Highly recommended for young people (but
prepare them for an aloof GW, true to life).



Since this speech was given, DVDs have replaced video
cassettes, and many new books have appeared, such as
1776 and
John Adams by David McCullough, His
Excellency George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis, and Washington’s
Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.

[1]The shortest of the ten is called The Genius of George Washington (New
York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1980), by
the admirable Edmund S. Morgan, Sterling Professor emeritus at Yale, and I
highly recommend it.

[2]In the foreword of James T. Flexner’s one-volume
biography Washington: The Indispensable
(Boston: Back Bay Books, Little, Brown and Company, 1969), Flexner
reports that he was actually mocked and ridiculed with “infantile glee” by male
acquaintances who had learned that he was working on a biography of Washington.
Flexner links this (rightly, I think) to the immature and unresolved problems
that many men have with father figures.

[3]The New
York Times
, July 2, 2000.

[4]Thomas Fleming, Liberty! The
American Revolution
(New York: Viking Penguin, 1997), 94.

[5]Knox was not yet a general at this point in the
war, but became one later. The little road behind the North
(Mass) store is named “General Knox Lane.”

[6]Quoted in Fleming, Liberty! 133.

[7]Fleming, Liberty! 107.

[8]For a helpful discussion of the difference between
the militia and the Continentals, see Liberty! 197.

[9]It is my impression that John Jay was an
exception, but I have not researched this.

[10]One biographer states that whereas Washington was a
“faithful Episcopalian” during the period after the French and Indian war,
after the Revolution this seemed to end. His resignation from the vestry of Truro church after the war
has been variously interpreted. He apparently ceased to receive Communion, and
did not ask for a clergyman when he knew he was dying. (John R. Alden, George Washington: A Biography (Baton Rouge: Louisiana
State University

Press, 1984).

[11]Quoted on The
Revolutionary War
, three videocassettes, narrated by Charles Kuralt (The
Learning Channel: Discovery Communications, Inc., 1995).

[12]Morgan, The
Meaning of Independence

(New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), 3.

[13]Fleming, Liberty! 51-2.

[14]The famously inflammatory and inexact illustration
of the episode by Paul Revere solidified the American perception of the
incident as a massacre. In fact it was more a debacle than a massacre, as the
soldiers were severely provoked by an unruly crowd for some period of time
prior to discharging their weapons.

[15]Fleming, Liberty!, 42.

[16]Edmund S. Morgan, The New York
Review of Books
, 6/25/92.

[17]Quoted in The
Revolutionary War
, Learning Channel videotape.

[18]The New York Times, 7/24/00.

[19]Quoted in “The Second American Revolution,” review
by Edmund S. Morgan of The Radicalism of
the American Revolution
, by Gordon S. Wood, The New York Review of Books, 6/25/92.

[20]Morgan, NYRB.

[21]Marcus Cunliffe, in his admirable George Washington: Man and Monument (Mount
Vernon, Virginia: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, 1998, originally published
1958), states that this did not actually happen, that it is part of the
even-then-emerging myth about Washington which was later taken up by numerous
biographers and historians (including Bobrick). Like other aspects of the myth,
however, it is not untrue to the total picture of Washington.

[22]Quoted in The
Essential George Washington
, Peter Hannaford, ed. (Bennington, Vermont:
Images From the Past, 1999), 4.

[23]Morgan, The
Genius of George Washington
, 13, 22.

[24]Morgan and Marcus Cunliffe both stress this.

[25]Gordon S. Wood calls this the “greatest act of his
life” (introduction to Cunliffe’s book, George
Washington: Man and Monument

[26]Quoted in The
by Howard Fast (Newark: New Jersey Historical
Society, 1984. Originally published 1971), 94-5.

[27]Fast, The
, 172.

[28]See especially The
Genius of George Washington
, Edmund S. Morgan.

[29]Quoted in The
Essential George Washington
, 26.

[30]Eric McKitrick, “Washington
the Liberator, The New York Review of Books, 11/4/99.

[31]Review by Joseph Dorman, The New York Times Book Review, 7/16/00.

[32] “If you would see his monument, look around you.”
Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man
and Monument
, 146-7. (It is noteworthy that this Latin inscription is also
found on the tomb of Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s,
London, with an
equally moving and apt—if not as far-reaching—significance. I would like to know
whether Cunliffe, who was English, lifted it deliberately from the Wren
monument or whether it has another, earlier provenance.).In my opinion,
Cunliffe’s short, elegant book about Washington
is the one book to have if you’re having only one.

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