Archives – Commentary | Jul. 3, 2006
It was the orneriness of the men
themselves that most frustrated and impressed George Washington.
Having an understanding of the
Anglican doctrine of original sin, as well as a commonsense understanding of
self-love and self-interest, Washington
was a Christian realist, not much given to illusions about human nature.
That was a good thing, for he saw
a wide array of human nature in the raw, among the many varieties of men he was
trying to discipline into becoming a potent army, able to stand against a
crisply trained foe. He understood the power of a thousand disciplined rifles
firing at once, sending forward a withering wall of hot lead.
He also knew how quickly
unorganized men turn to run, in the face of oncoming blazing guns that seem
Beginning with his service in
western Virginia and Pennsylvania,
came for the first time into regular close contact with the “lower classes” of
American life. Surly, unused to being given orders by anyone, antagonistic to
those of the higher classes like him, independent, willful and tempestuous, as
soldiers they seemed to him most difficult material. He knew from the British
and the French what a well-organized military forced looked like, how it acted,
how it obeyed.
What could possibly make Americans
Out of one roll of 400 volunteers,
he had to send away all but 140 as wholly unsuited, and those who stayed gave
him the tussle of his young life. He had, after all, become their major sheerly by dint of his social standing, at the unripe age
of 21. He had a reputation for bravery already, and he was nearly 6 feet 4
inches tall and strong as any man among them.
Those qualities probably saved
In the meantime, he tried throwing
the least disorderly into dark jails, ordering lashes to be applied to others
(which hurt these proud men worse than death), and building a 40-foot gibbet on
which to hang those whose offenses, by common usage, merited it.
But Washington was then a young officer. The
fate of his own small units in the field may have
seemed to require such draconian efforts to win sufficient discipline for their
survival in battle. But by the time of his taking command of the Continental
Army (not yet called that) in June 1775, he found himself commanding groups of
a quite different character from the Virginian backwoodsmen he had led as a
young officer. And they posed for him new problems that compounded the problems
he already knew.
As David Hackett Fischer makes
plain in a brilliant chapter on the diverse forces assembled under Washington in Massachusetts,
the social background of the regiments assembled from different regions brought
together Americans who had never been in close social commerce before. Often
they did not like each other. In dress, comportment, and manners, each of them
offended some others.
This is not the place to attempt
the thorough job that Fischer does, but a few comments must be made. Each of
the distinctive American regions represented in Washington’s army meant something different
by the battle cry “liberty.”
For instance, the Marblehead regiment mentioned above had a
very strong sense of community, including men of mixed race, blacks, and
Indians, many of whom had all gone to sea together and all depended on each
other. When they shouted “liberty” they meant the freedom to form their own
communities, with their own ideas of equality and inclusiveness.
By contrast, when Washington and the other
Virginians and some other southern aristocrats
huzzah-ed for liberty, they had in mind the vivid contrast between freemen and
slaves. About this, they knew a lot; many had seen or ordered slaves whipped
with the lash for insubordination. They did not want to be slaves — that is the
most vivid contrast they had for “liberty.” They thought property an important
condition for liberty, and the freedom to acquire it sacred. They thought
material equality was, as James Madison put it, “a wicked project.” They valued
social standing, class, good manners and the high skills and moral seriousness
of good soldiering.
Meanwhile, the rough yeomen in
their heavily dyed hunting shirts from western Virginia, around Culpeper,
had a still different idea of liberty, an idea that was deeply individualistic.
Their distinctive white flag,
bearing upon it an aroused rattlesnake, bore the warning in black: “Don’t tread
on me!” In that slogan, as Fischer adroitly points out, the warning was based
on me. Theirs was not the covenanted
community of New England, nor the aristocratic liberty of the gentleman
patriots, but the “keep off our backs” of the common people of the burgeoning Middle West.
and New York,
the primary meaning of liberty seemed to be liberty from central government —
liberty meant at the very least minimal government. Partly this idea was fed by
the Whig tradition of liberty in Britain, with a strong component of
commercial and market liberty. In part it was fed by Adam Smith and others of
the Scottish commonsense philosophers who, combined with John Locke, saw in
human nature a “system of natural liberty.”
In Maryland, where Catholics were
forbidden to hold civic office or even to seek higher education for their sons,
the first expectation from liberty was — as Charles Carroll explained to
Washington as Catholic negotiators traveled to Canada to seek French support
for independence — freedom from “religious tests” for public office.
“Liberty” was the unifying cry, all right. But
the new commander in chief had to learn the hard way just how many different
meanings of that term were vital to different sections of his army.
His gentleman regiments from the
South found the northern commoners a dirty, nasty and unpleasant lot, totally hostile to
any corporal punishment for insubordination, stubborn and hard to work with —
but they certainly learned to admire them as fighting men. The Marblehead
regiment proved itself to be one of the very best in the entire Continental
Army, as also did the glistening red-coated, silk-ruffled Maryland regiment of gentlemen, at first
made fun of and mocked by the northerners.
Their fierce bravery under fire
saved the army from a complete rout on Long Island
in August 1776.
From the book Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of Our Country by Michael and Jana Novak.
© 2006. Reprinted by
arrangement with Basic Books.