Channelling George Washington: The Glorious Fourth!





Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the second in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington." Click here to read the first installment.

     “I thought this might be a good time to talk about revolutions.”

     This time I had  no difficulty recognizing the deep voice. I had been hoping Mr. Washington might think the nation’s birthday was a good time for another chat. I had  devoted a good chunk of my  career as a writer to the American Revolution.  But I was more than willing to discuss other upheavals.

   “I can’t think of a better time to talk about revolutions, General. We just had a  failed one  in Iran. Russia is still trying to recover from the collapse of its 1917 embrace of Communism and is currently in a state of fascist-style denial. In this hemisphere, Venezuela and Ecuador are in the midst of upheavals created by demagogues who have obviously learned nothing from Russia’s disaster. In Cuba  another failed revolution and its demagogue, Fidel Castro, are on  life support. In China, millions of men and women are beginning to wonder if they’re free to make money, why aren’t they free to speak their minds?”

     “It makes you wonder how the American Revolution succeeded, doesn’t it?”

      “Do you have an answer, General?”

       “I remember getting together  in my old age with Charles Thomson, the secretary to the Continental Congress from 1774 until it expired in a chorus of good riddances in 1789.  Between us we had seen more of the inside story of the political and military side of the Revolution than anyone else. Charlie asked me if I was going to write my memoirs.  I said no. Was he going to write his?  He said no.

        “Why not, General? There isn’t an historian I know who wouldn’t give an arm and maybe a leg to read them.”

       “We both agreed that if either of us committed such an act of folly – and told the truth about how close we came to losing the war --  it would disillusion every man and woman in the country.”

      “Does that mean you don’t have an answer for how we won?”

      ”I told Charlie Thomson  there  was only one explanation --Divine Providence.  Charlie was a hotheaded Irishman in his youth –  for a while he was known  as the Sam Adams of Philadelphia.  But he was older and a lot wiser when we talked. He replied: “That’s the only answer.”

           “Does Ben Franklin agree with that answer?”

            “Absolutely. Do you know that by 1781, Franklin was so disgusted and discouraged with the way things were going, he resigned as ambassador to France? Congress persuaded him to change his mind, thank God.”

               “Did you ever think of resigning, General?”

               “At least ten times. Especially during those six months at Valley Forge, when all sorts of wise men in Congress were saying  I was a disaster as a general. They blamed me for letting  the British  capture Philadelphia.  The idiots still didn’t get what I told them in 1776, after our defeats in New York.  We had a new strategy – a protracted war.  Congress wanted me to fight to the last man to defend their creature comforts in Philadelphia.  When they had to flee to York, Pennsylvania, where everyone spoke German and it was impossible to buy a  meal that didn’t include sauerkraut, they were outraged. Doesn’t your heart bleed for those poor fellows, even at a distance of two hundred and thirty one years?”

                    “Unquestionably, General.  I was so moved, I wrote a book about it.”

                  “I hope you covered the  time they sent a delegation to Valley Forge to humiliate me into resigning.”

                    “I’d like to hear your version of it, General.”

                     “I knew the game they were playing.  The President of Congress, Henry Laurens, was on my side, thanks to some not so subtle persuasion from his son, John, who was my aide.  Henry told us that Sam Adams’s favorite shoe polisher, Congressman James Lovell, was bragging they were going to ‘rap a demigod over the knuckles.’ Sam was on vacation in Boston, otherwise he would have said it himself.  That may help you understand  why some people called Sam ‘Judas Iscariot.’ ”

                      “What did you do, General?”

                        “I sat Alex Hamilton down at my desk, put a quill in his hand, and  told him to start writing while I talked. By the time we finished, poor Ham’s arm was ready for a sling but we had twenty thousand polished words,  explaining why Congress was wrecking the army with its brainless interference  in our day to day operations.  We dropped this sputtering bomb in the committee’s collective lap and guess what?

            “They changed their minds about rapping you on the knuckles?”

            “They went back to Congress and got me  the right to select the men I wanted to run the quartermaster and commissary department..   They even backed me when I asked for something that drove Sam and his friends wild -- pensions for my officers.”

                “Why did they object to that, General?

                “Sam and his circle were still in love with their fantasy of winning the war with pure patriotism.  A pension appealed to a man’s self interest, which supposedly corrupted his patriotism. I told them patriotism was a noble emotion but it wouldn’t win a protracted war. Pensions passed by one vote –six states to five. If that vote had gone the other way, there wouldn’t have been an American army by 1779.  Three hundred officers resigned in the six months we were at Valley Forge!”

                  “I begin to see what you mean about disillusion, General.  Why was Ben Franklin discouraged? He wasn’t at Valley Forge.”

                   “Ben was 70 when our Revolution began. He could have stayed neutral and preserved his fame as a scientist and social philosopher. But he   risked his life and reputation because he believed in the importance of freedom for the American people. Do you know he wrote the first declaration of independence, a full year before Tom J. penned the  one that’s made him  famous?”

                    “As I recall the story, his friends told Franklin not to even mention his declaration.  Congress was terrified of the word  independence”

                   “History advances like a crab, more sideways than forward, as far as the people involved are concerned.  What did Ben get for risking everything?  Sneers, jealousy, slander from John Adams and Sam Adams and Richard Henry Lee and other supposedly deep thinkers in the Continental Congress.  They portrayed this old man, who suffered from gout, bladder stones and God knows what else,  as one of the great womanizers of the era! They said he was a sycophant who truckled too much to the French! The man singlehandedly persuaded France to become our ally! He also extracted  40 million dollars worth of aid at a time when the French were going broke on the installment plan! That’s $800 million  in  depreciating 2009 dollars!  Without that money, the Revolution would have evaporated . The money Congress was printing  turned into waste paper in 1780.”

             “So along with Divine Providence, there were actions – contributions – by human beings that made a difference?”

              “Unquestionably.  Let me use the battle of Monmouth as an example. For the first half hour, I thought we were going to lose not only the battle but the whole war. My second in command, an egomaniac named Charles Lee, retreated without orders from me. Two thirds of the British army were on his heels,  They  were only 15 minutes away  and we had yet to  deploy into  line of battle! As I sat there on my horse, trying to decide what to do, one of my aides escorted a New Jersey officer to my side and told me that the man knew the terrain we were on intimately. In fact, his family owned it! In five minutes the  officer gave me the lay of the land and I ordered the army to deploy with maximum effectiveness.” 

               “Then the British attacked?”

               “Led by the Guards regiment, their elite troops.  Fighting in 98 degree heat, we beat them back so thoroughly,  after nightfall, they slunk away from the battlefield to the safety of their fortifications in New York.  The next day I wrote my brother Jack a letter, telling him I was convinced that God had had a great deal to do with placing us in the precise position where we were able to fight them to a standstill. That was Providence’s part in the story. But the  rest of it – the courage, the  bleeding and dying –depended on us. ”

              “I came across a story about the battle of Monmouth,, General, that I’ve always wanted to ask you about. The night before the battle, a young officer  received a message from his mother, telling him his older brother was seriously ill. She begged him to come home immediately. She didn’t have any idea there was a battle shaping up when she wrote it, of course.  The officer was preparing to leave when he heard some of his men sneering he was a coward and using his sick brother as an excuse to escape the fight. He was infuriated.  He grabbed a musket and fought in the ranks that day, until the British retreated,”

               “All true so far. One of my aides heard about it and told me the story. I sent for the officer and congratulated him for his courage. Then I told him: “But you should have gone to your brother.”

                “Do you still think so,  General?”

               “To understand it, you have to know how much I loved my older brother Lawrence, who died of  consumption when I was in my teens. He taught me what  being a soldier was all about. First and last you were a man of honor.  I wasn’t rebuking  that young officer. I was only telling him that there were times when a man  of honor is faced with agonizing  choices – and ultimately love should have the last word.”

               “What was the Revolution’s most perilous moment? “

                “From my viewpoint  it was the final moments. On December 23, 1783, I was in Annapolis, where the Continental Congress was sitting.  I went before them to resign my commission. The war was won. The last British soldier had sailed from New York.  When I walked into the Annapolis state house, I should have been the happiest man in the universe. But when I looked at the twenty or so Congressmen waiting to greet me, I felt nothing but RAGE.”

                “Why?”

                “These men had repudiated their promise to pay my officers pensions for life. They had sent these officers and their men home without paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay.  Without money to pay debts they had accumulated to feed their wives and children.  I had written these politicians a letter, telling them if they did these things, I would  face a lifetime of EMBITTERMENT!  They  ignored it.”

                     “What did you think – and feel – at that moment, General?”

                      “For  a few seconds, I understood why another victorious general, Oliver Cromwell had  walked into the English Parliament  a hundred years earlier and told them to go home.  For another  few seconds, I heard myself denouncing these political zeros and calling on the American people to join me in utter contempt of their meanness, ineptitude and nauseating self satisfaction.  I would go home to Mount Vernon and see what happened next!“

                       “But you didn’t do either one, General. Why?”

                       “Because I heard my brother Lawrence telling me that the greatest satisfaction a soldier can achieve is to do the honorable thing,  no matter how unrewarding it may seem to be. Because I knew, in spite of our differences about fighting the war, men like Sam Adams and I agreed on the crucial importance of  making Americans  a free people.  To do anything that endangered that freedom, which we’d just won after eight exhausting years of struggle, would have been the ultimate act of dishonor.  So I bowed before  the assembled representatives of the people,  congratulated them on our amazing victory, and went home.”

              “I think that’s the greatest moment in American history, General.”

               “It was a turning point in my life. I realized  how much I wanted to see this country happy.  That became infinitely more important  than any form of self satisfaction I could imagine.“

              “Does the American Revolution still matter, General?”

             “It will always matter. Within a century of  our victory, no less than 200 similar declarations of independence were published around the world. I like to think there are invisible American Revolutions happening today in Iran,  in Russia, in China,  in Venezuela. Wherever men and women realize they’re being deprived of freedom,  America’s example stirs resistance in their souls.”

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