How George Washington Didn’t LeadHistorians in the News
tags: George Washington, leadership, presidential history
Editor’s Note (Bulwark): George Washington was a man of action—yet some of his greatest deeds on the battlefield and in politics involved decisions to not act or to delay action. To mark his birthday, we asked writers and historians to discuss this aspect of his leadership.
Not Overreacting to Rivals
The fall of 1777 was not a good time to be General George Washington. His losses at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown led to the fall of Philadelphia and sent the Continental Congress on the run. Meanwhile, Washington’s rival General Horatio Gates was hailed the “Northern Hero” for his victory at the Battle of Saratoga.
With Washington encamped with his army at Valley Forge for the winter, various officers, politicians, and writers in the press attempted to remove the commander-in-chief. In a loose collection of self-interested scheming—what came to be called the “Conway Cabal”—General Thomas Conway pushed for the victorious Gates to take over from Washington. Congress, seemingly in support, quickly promoted Conway and even gave him an independent position with supervisory powers over his own commander. Still Washington, at one of the lowest points of the war and his life, chose to take no direct action. He simply stood firm, supported civilian supremacy, and pledged to “always afford every Countenance & due respect to those appointed by Congress.” Before long the cabal, whether real or imagined, dissolved as the behind-the-scenes maneuvering was exposed—and Washington’s command was reaffirmed.
Leading through inaction is an underrated skill. It is even more notable when performed from a position of weakness and with the risk of great personal sacrifice.
—Craig Bruce Smith is the author of American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.
Not Acting Beyond His Authority
As a military commander, George Washington deferred to the Continental Congress. Even when he knew Congress was wrong, he let the people’s delegates have the last word. By being deferential rather than assertive, Washington cemented the principle of military subordination to civilian authority as the cornerstone of the American military.
Washington was no pushover, however. He complained to Congress all the time about his army’s threadbare clothes and weevil-ridden bread, their lack of pay and their evil-smelling whiskey, their sinking morale and their imminent disintegration. But he spoke confidentially and used the proper chain of command, reminding Congress that he and the army understood their role in a republic.
As president, Washington was more muscular vis-à-vis Congress, because the executive branch was equal to the legislature. For example, Washington set a course for presidential leadership in foreign affairs by making a mistake: He once visited the Senate seeking advice on a treaty, but he found the body’s deliberative ways so frustrating he vowed never to return. The Senate effectively saw its “advice and consent” role shrunk to consent only.
As the modern presidency has become ever more imperial, we should ask our leaders to relearn what Washington knew: when to be assertive toward other levels and branches of government and when to defer to them.
–David Head is the author of A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy, and the Fate of the American Revolution