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 unstoppable.

Beginning with his service in western Virginia and Pennsylvania, Washington 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 competitive?

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 him.

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.

In Pennsylvania 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.

Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books.