John Ferling
The First of Men

He knew what could win the war, as well as what might lose it. He could be cautious, resorting to the Fabian tactics that ran counter to his grain, retreating to preserve his army for another day, all the while protracting the conflict, buying time for war weariness to set in and eat away at Britain, time that would eventually induce America's friends in Europe to intervene. But he could be—he longed to be—unpredictably daring as well. At Dorchester Heights and again at Trenton and Princeton, at Germantown and still again at Monmouth, he lashed out in hazardous undertakings that so bore the imprint of his militant, activist, venturesome character that it is difficult to conceive of many other high American officers even contemplating such steps. Indeed, he alone seems to have planned the Trenton-Princeton operations; he had to nudge his general officers repeatedly to gain their consent to act at Dorchester; he obtained their approval for the strike at Germantown through what amounted to outright trickery; and he acted at Monmouth despite almost everyone's advice to remain inert. It was his nature to think in grandiose terms and to act in a daring manner. In fact, he was driven toward this behavior, for to act otherwise was to raise the specter of inadequacy and self-contempt. It was his good fortune to escape the blunders into which his temperament might have led him, but it was due to these same compelling drives that he had reaped for America its greatest victories in this war.

The insecurities that led Washington to his quest for self-esteem, as well as to his venturesome proclivities, his remoteness, and his suspicious, distrusting nature were not always endearing qualities. Nor did they always serve him well. His search for self cohesion led him into clashes with good general officers, perhaps even to the ruination of men like Ward and Lee; it prompted him to tolerate a essential mediocrity such as Sullivan, while blinding him to the inexperience and failures of a lad like Lafayette, and it almost certainly influenced his negative reaction to the plan to invade Canada, a strategy with considerable potential merit. But at the same time his makeup helped him find daring and capable officers like Arnold and Wayne and Knox. Indeed, qualities that might have been deleterious in almost any other pursuit became virtues when exercised by the commander of an army, for his character steeled him for difficult decisions, drove him to action, and even isolated him, contributing to his larger-than-life aura.

Lee and Hamilton saw the dark side of George Washington. But those who esteemed this man also were correct, for he exhibited many admirable qualities. He combined courage with diligence. The first came naturally, but industry and perseverence were traits that he had been compelled to learn in his long ascent from Ferry Farm. In many ways, as historian Bernard Mayo observed, he was a man of unexceptional endowments who through 'human effort'—not by 'mythic magic'—had attained one objective after another. Now, an amateur soldier confronted by a professional adversary, Washington once again called upon those strategies that always had served him so well. To compensate for his inexperience he studiously read the best military manuals. Realizing his own inadequacies, he sought and listened to advice. He worked hard, putting in one long day after another. He learned from his mistakes, and, above all, he learned the folly of indecision.

Washington's greatest asset, a French officer once noted, was his faculty for understanding 'the art of making himself beloved.' Not only did Washington seem untainted by the corruptibility that his countrymen perceived as the inevitable accompaniment of royalty, but, even more, his actions seemed to manifest the greatest virtues of republicanism. Again, his refusal of a salary, his eschewing of a sumptuous life style, his sacrifice in the public cause, his willingness as commander to abide by the general will of his civilian governors, his very embodiment of what John Adams once called the 'great, manly, warlike virtues' captured the popular imagination. He knew what was expected of him. His office, he once said, required that he behave with 'the strictest rectitude, and most scrupulous exactness.' As usual in such matters he was correct. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, his grasp of what was required of him arose from some innate genius. Yet Washington was a man well practiced in the art of understanding others. At the core of his being lay the compelling drive that led to his search for self-enhancement, and all his life Washington had sought to learn the techniques that would facilitate his yearnings.

Perhaps it would have been preferable for another man to have commanded the Continental army, but few contemporaries—and still fewer historians—would have hazarded that opinion. To swap Washington for an elderly Ward, an indolent Schuyler, a rustic Putnam, a temperamental and acerbic Lee hardly seems a bargain. What if Gates had supplanted Washington? He was ambitious, political, vain, and manipulative, but so was Washington. Gates also was more experienced militarily, he too was a good administrator, his compassion for his men was at least equal to that of Washington, and his commitment to the principles of the Revolution was above question. Thus, he was a reasonable candidate for the job, though we cannot know how Gates would have performed as the commander of the Continental army any more than we can know how Washington would have acted had he initially been appointed to serve under Gates.

By 1778, Washington had lived up to his countrymen's expectations, and by 1778 he had come to symbolize the Revolution, embodying the republican virtues of courage and selfless public service. On the other hand, his generalship was laudatory, but not brilliant. While his leadership had resulted in one extraordinary triumph (Trenton-Princeton), as well as one estimable maneuver that produced an apparent victory (Dorchester Heights), he was also largely responsible for one crushing defeat (Fort Washington). His daring almost led to another sensational victory at Germantown, but by the same token his risk-taking nearly had resulted in losses both in the New York and the Monmouth engagements, and his shoddy attention to military intelligence contributed to his army's losses at Brandywine.

By 1778, therefore, it is difficult to disagree with John Adams's assessment. The Revolution was too big to hang on the performance of one man, he had told Dr. Rush. Washington's contributions to the war effort were obvious and crucial, but Adams was correct to suggest that success or failure hinged on many men and many variables. Moreover, given his own genius at understanding the events of his time, Adams realized what many have been unable to accept: through the summer of 1778 Britain itself was more responsible for its own military woes than was any American leader.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.