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 are 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 uartering 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 assachusetts. 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.


            Washington, 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” (463).[10] 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 York 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 Washington 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 Britain. 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 Impaler.


            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. (75)


            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 idea.


            Illumination into the American character sometimes came from unexpected sources. During the dreadful winter at Valley Forge, 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 Times 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 obituary:


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)


A 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 (93).[21]


            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.”


In 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., 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]


            Washington’s 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 strongmen.


            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]


            Washington 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 because 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 slaves. 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 Vernon. 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 MarcusCunliffe:


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.

<![if !supportFootnotes]>


[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
Egremont (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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