October 6, 2010


O Captain, Our Captain: George Washington was a genius and a titan, but it was politics, not war, at which he excelled: a review of Washington: A Life By Ron Chernow (ANDREW ROBERTS, 10/05/10, WSJ)

It was said of Prussian chancellor Otto von Bismarck that he was the subtle son of his feline mother posing all his life as his heavy, portentous father. Similarly, the George Washington who emerges from this truly magnificent life is an acute, consummate politician who posed all his life—with next to no justification—as a bluff but successful soldier. The pose came off because Washington himself so desperately wanted it to be true, but Ron Chernow wrenches back the curtain to reveal the real Washington, a general almost bereft of tactical ability yet a politician full of penetrating strategic insight. In this (English, anti-Revolutionary) reviewer's estimation, Washington emerges a far greater man. [...]

Crucially for America's as well as his own future, Washington was endowed with preternatural leadership qualities—primarily the ability to seem confident when privately he felt, as Mr. Chernow puts it, "gloomy, scathing, hot-blooded and pessimistic." It was "perhaps less his military skills than his character which eclipsed all competitors," he writes. "Washington was dignified, circumspect and upright, whereas his enemies seemed petty and skulking." This was true not just of his overt British enemies but also of his many covert detractors inside the Continental Army and in Congress.

During the war, Washington needed to keep the army—which Mr. Chernow describes as "a bizarre mongrel corps that flouted the rules of contemporary warfare"—as a fighting force in the field, no matter how many towns or battles were lost. In this he succeeded triumphantly, despite venereal disease among the troops, a dearth of gunpowder, mass desertions, treachery (even from some of his own bodyguards), and truly monstrous winters. "Whatever his failings as a general," writes Mr. Chernow, "Washington's moral force held the shaky army together."

It is worth considering whether the "windswept plateau" of Valley Forge, where 2,000 of Washington's men died of diseases compounded by malnutrition, was really the best place to spend the winter of 1777–78, but it seems that the only reason there was no mutiny in that "scene of harrowing misery" was Washington's sheer force of personality. (And perhaps the fact that any man caught stealing food was given 600 lashes.)

In the end, nothing can detract from the untarnishable glory of Washington's having been the commander in chief throughout the war, in which the largest expeditionary force of the 18th century came to total grief.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 6, 2010 5:51 AM
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