Washington Couldn't Lie But Others Have

He’s been called insufficiently intellectual, a lousy general, and a mere figurehead as president. None of the myths are true. You just can’t cut Washington down to normal size.

Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty

George Washington’s ascent from obscure colonial to worldwide fame as the founder of a great nation has inspired thousands of books and even more numerous essays that have sought to explain him. Inevitably, these attempts have mingled envy with admiration, skepticism with fervent faith. Out of this mix have emerged a number of myths that have led many people to misunderstand both the man and his achievements.

Among the most widespread has been the myth that Washington was a boring, unimaginative man, with no education worth mentioning—his formal schooling ended in the fourth grade. Some of Washington’s contemporaries were downright deprecatory. John Adams, tormented by lifelong envy, wrote, “That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is … past dispute.” Thomas Jefferson, who was just as envious but more astute at concealing it, said Washington “spent his time in action chiefly, reading little, and that only in agriculture and English history.”

Worthington Chauncey Ford, one of Washington’s early biographers, declared that he “read for a purely commercial purpose; to fit himself for service in camp, and to conduct his farming on a profitable basis.” More recent biographers, including Douglas Southall Freeman and James Thomas Flexner, largely agreed with this summation—Flexner said Washington was only a “sporadic reader.”

The facts differ drastically with these conclusions. Conscious of what he called his “defective education,” Washington was a lifetime reader. As early as 1771, he ordered 500 bookplates with his family’s coat of arms on them. This was far more than the number of books in his library at that time. Eventually he acquired more than 900 books on a wide variety of subjects. The collection included Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle. He also had a book called The Beauties of Sterne, full of quotations from Tristram Shandy, considered racy reading in those days. He owned the complete works of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift.

Even more important as evidence of his appetite for culture was Washington’s love of the theater. He was a frequent patron of the American Theater Company, a group of British actors who performed in Williamsburg in the 1760s and 1770s, as well as in Annapolis, Philadelphia, and New York. He especially enjoyed The Recruiting Officer, a satire on the British army by George Farquhar, John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s She Stoops to Conquer. He praised—and bought a copy of—the first significant American play, Royall Tyler’s The Contrast.

Another widely held belief about Washington is his inadequacy as a general. He lost more battles than he won. Tom Paine claimed that all the important victories were won by other generals, such as Horatio Gates, Nathanael Greene, and Daniel Morgan. In the 1960s, I spent three years at West Point writing a history of the military academy, and met numerous generals. I often asked them what they thought of Washington’s abilities as a general. Invariably, they said he was in the top rank of history’s commanders. Why? They all gave me the same answer. He changed the strategy of the war.

For most civilians, this does not sound like a great achievement. But for a trained military man, strategy, the basic idea underlying the way a particular war is fought, is crucial. Tactics—the decisions made in the midst of a battle, such as whether to attack on the right flank or the left, are important, too. But a commanding general leaves those to subordinates. My West Point generals emphasized that Washington’s change of strategy was especially remarkable because he made the decision in the middle of the war.

Washington began the war accepting a strategy created by Samuel Adams and other politicians in the Continental Congress. They foresaw victory in a “general action”—an all-out battle with the British army, in which America’s superior numbers and fighting spirit would overwhelm the enemy and end the war in a year or less. America did not need a big regular army, they argued. Militia, relatively untrained, but fervently patriotic amateurs, would bolster the ranks of the regulars.

The British trumped this strategy by sending to America the largest army they had ever shipped overseas—30,000 men. At the battle of Brooklyn in August 1776, Washington had about 10,000 regulars and another 12,000 or 13,000 militia. The British smashed them and narrowly missed entrapping the American army, which would have ended the war.

Escaping to Manhattan with the help of a providential shift in the wind on the East River, Washington wrote the Continental Congress his most important letter. Henceforth, he told them, the American Army would avoid a general action. They would never put everything “to the risqué.” [sic] Instead, they would “protract the war.” It took another seven often harrowing years, but this proved to be the strategy of victory.

Closely allied with this astute decision is another myth: Washington won by fighting a guerilla war. This is currently the most popular myth about the American Revolution. America’s disastrous experience in South Vietnam has prompted dozens of pundits, homegrown and foreign, to wonder why the nation forgot the great lesson that Washington demonstrated in 1776-81: how guerillas can defeat a regular army.

The opposite is the truth. Washington never fought a guerilla war. In 1776, when everything seemed ready to totter into total disaster, many people lamented the failure of New Jersey’s 17,000 militia to turn out when summoned. Washington had been forced to retreat to Pennsylvania with a remnant of his army. One New England general denounced the patriotism of the New Jersey men in a bitter letter to Washington. He replied that the failure of the amateurs to fight was due to “the want of an army to look the enemy in the face.”

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This idea became the second pillar of Washington’s winning strategy. He meant a regular army, trained and equipped with artillery and backed by cavalry and an efficient quartermaster and commissary corps. Early in the war, Washington saw that relying on militia to fight guerilla style was a recipe for disaster. Guerillas cannot prevent an enemy’s regular army from inflicting terrible punishment on a country’s civilian population, destroying their morale.

Throughout the rest of the Revolutionary War, whenever Washington’s regular army was in danger of a serious defeat, he retreated. That was how he survived the 1777 battles of Brandywine and Germantown, even though a retreat meant the British would capture the American capital, Philadelphia. The control of the capital was not as important as keeping an army intact, so they could continue to look the enemy in the face. The strategy did not exclude the use of militia. They could do good work skirmishing on the flanks of the enemy’s army, inflicting damage and giving the illusion of an unbeatable patriot host.

In 1778, Washington was confronted with a clear choice between a guerilla and a regular war. The second-ranking American general, Charles Lee, captured by British cavalry in 1776, was exchanged and appeared in Philadelphia to lecture Congress on how to win the war. He urged them to disband Washington’s regulars and rely on the patriotism and courage of militia, with Lee in command. Washington flatly rejected his plan. A few months later, when Lee disobeyed orders at the Battle of Monmouth, ordering a retreat instead of an attack, Washington sent him into early retirement.

Perhaps it is the example of the Washington Monument, that austere, wordless memorial towering over our nation’s capital, but most people do not think of Washington as a gifted politician. He is regularly portrayed as an icon who was above politics. As early as 1778, during the Valley Forge encampment, he demonstrated that this idea was extremely far from the truth. During those six months, Washington had to deal with a conspiracy led by Samuel Adams and his coterie in the Continental Congress and two of the Continental Army’s most respected generals, Quartermaster Thomas Mifflin and Saratoga victor Horatio Gates. Also in the game was a vocal French volunteer, General Thomas Conway, who specialized in denigrating Washington to everyone he could find, from fellow soldiers to local tavern keepers. The goal was to force Washington into resigning, either in exasperation or humiliation or both.

The conspirators blamed Washington for allowing the British to capture Philadelphia. They evinced no interest in—or understanding of—his strategy of protracted war. Instead, they made General Gates the head of a new entity, the Board of War, which gave him the power to make military decisions without consulting Washington. Next, the hostile congressmen sent to Valley Forge a five-man delegation that would “rap a demigod over the knuckles,” as one of them confidently wrote to Sam Adams.

Washington received the delegation politely. He calmly handed them a 20,000-word letter ghosted for him by Alexander Hamilton. It brilliantly analyzed the army’s problems and suggested drastic solutions, such as giving the officers pensions for life to keep them in the army for the protracted war. Next, Washington invited Congressman Henry Dana, the chairman of the delegation, to dinner at his headquarters, where they discussed this impressive document. Finally Washington looked the would-be knuckle rapper in the eyes and said: “Mr. Dana—Congress does not trust me. I cannot go on thus.”

Congressman Dana’s hostility vanished. On the contrary, the congressman vowed, he not only trusted Washington. He would make sure the rest of Congress agreed with him. Dana soon made good on this promise. It was the beginning of the end of the conspiracy against General Washington.

The fifth, and in some ways the most dangerous, myth is Washington’s role as America’s first president. Numerous historians have portrayed him as merely presiding in this crucial job, letting Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton do the governing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In conversations with James Madison at Mount Vernon in 1786-7, Washington played a crucial role in creating the presidency. At the Constitutional Convention, he insisted that it should be a single man, rather than the three-headed committee some delegates were recommending. Again and again, Washington made it clear that the office should be equal in power to Congress. At one point he even argued that Congress should be forbidden to override a presidential veto.

During the Revolutionary War, Washington had spent eight long years dealing with Congress, and soon identified its potentially fatal flaw. No one was responsible for its policies, which emerged from a cacophony of voices. Most important, a body composed of a hundred or two hundred men is much too large and diffuse to lead a nation. This crucial task had to be performed by one man.

Washington made the presidency’s importance clear in one of his first acts: he wrote to all the nations of Europe, informing them that if they wished to contact the United States, they should write to him, not Congress. Again and again, especially in matters of foreign policy, he acted without consulting Congress. When France and England went to war in 1793, Washington ignored Jefferson’s objections and issued a proclamation of neutrality. When radicals in western Pennsylvania objected to a federal tax on whiskey and began talking secession, Washington summoned 13,000 men from nearby states and crushed their proto-rebellion. More than 150 men were arrested. Only two were convicted—and President Washington pardoned them.

Far from merely presiding while Hamilton and Jefferson argued over the nation’s direction, Washington was constantly in charge. Roughly half the time he favored Hamilton, and the rest of his decisions backed Jefferson. In face-to-face confrontations, Washington dismissed Jefferson’s claim that Hamilton was trying to create a proto-monarchy. The brilliant graduate of the College of William and Mary was flabbergasted to find himself out-argued by a man who had not even graduated from grade school.

Clearly, from the day Washington took the oath of office to the end of his second term, he was a president who governed—and inspired. He closed his presidency with his Farewell Address, which underscored the crucial importance of the American Union. Without a deep and widespread respect—even affection—for the union, Abraham Lincoln might not have won the Civil War.

Harry Truman, one of our most history-minded leaders, considered the American presidency the greatest public office created by the mind of man. The American who deserves most of the credit for this achievement was George Washington.

Thomas Fleming is the author of The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.