Earlier this week Marc Theissen wrote a piece for the Washington Post headlined “The tea party needs a General Washington” in which Theissen tries to equate the political struggle in Congress to the American Revolution and, predictably, bemoans the shutdown as a catastrophe.
Anytime someone relies upon a movie, in this case The Patriot, for their history bad things tend to happen. I will plead guilty to doing a book report based on my library of Classics Illustrated comics, but that was high school. And I wasn’t getting paid to write.
By contrast, George Washington knew better than to go muzzle-to-muzzle with superior British forces in an open field. He followed what was known as the “Fabian Strategy” (named for the Roman leader Quintus Fabius Maximus), avoiding large, unwinnable battles in favor of smaller strategic engagements. As historian James Scythes explains it, “unless his army enjoyed a distinct advantage, Washington believed he must avoid direct battle” and “instead resorted to swift raids against detachments of the enemy’s army.”
Historical analogies are rarely exact. Times and circumstances change. But this description of Washington, including the quote attributed Mr. Scythes are only true if you cherry pick your cases and deliberately misunderstand Washington’s strategy. I have to admit being somewhat stunned to find this on the Mount Vernon website, which apparently constituted the sum total of Thiessen’s research:
The Battle of Brandywine (September 11, 1777) was the only occasion [my emphasis] between the disastrous defeats around New York City and the end of the war that Washington risked his army in a full-scale battle. Washington only took this chance because the revolutionary cause could not afford losing the capital of Philadelphia without a fight.
Let’s examine that so we’ll ignore the pitched battles that precede the fall of New York such as Brooklyn Heights, White Plains, and Harlem Heights. Let’s review the bidding:
New York City fell on September 15, 1776.
- On Christmas Eve, 1776, Washington hazarded the complete strength of the Continental army on attacking the British forces at Trenton.
- On January 3, 1777, Washington again threw the entire strength of the Continental army into battle at Princeton.
While some may claim that these two fall into the “swift raids against detachments” both were near run affairs, Princeton, in particular was won on a razor’s edge. And as the entire war was fought with the British army in “detachments” because their army was so small and the territory presented by the colonies so large I’m not really sure what this distinction is supposed to mean. Likewise I’m sure there is some quibble on the part of Thiessen as to what constitutes a “full-scale battle.”
What is overlooked is that on January 2, 1777, Washington’s entire army, some 4,000 men, slugged it out with the British Army at Second Trenton. Personally, I think this may very well be Washington’s masterwork in field command as he made a conscious decision to face down the British army, cannily used Edward Hand’s Pennsylvania riflemen to delay and disorganize the enemy, mauled them in a set piece battle on carefully chosen terrain, disengaged under cover of darkness and struck at Princeton. Rather bizarrely, Thiessen describes Second Trenton and Princeton thusly:
So he left his campfires burning as a diversionary tactic, snuck around the British camp, and took on the British in a series of smaller rear-guard engagements.
On June 28, 1778, Washington committed his entire army to battle at Monmouth, though he was outnumbered by about thirty percent (11,000 Continentals and militia versus 15,000 British regulars)
[update based on info from commenter saltlick]
On October 4, 1777, Washington threw his 11,000 man army at William Howe’s 9,000 regulars at Germantown and was soundly thrashed.
So on at least
four five occasions, other than Brandywine, after the fall of New York City Washington went at the British Army with every man he had at his disposal.
This is all beside the point. Warfare is not politics and there are no reasonable analogies, much less good ones, between political and military strategies. Even the dimmest bulb knows that Washington’s greatest achievement was keeping an army in the field and raising essentially a new army each spring to replace the one that had gone home over the winter. This was possible because Washington was revered as a man of principle.
We are all familiar with his famous decision to forego being monarch and that he served only two terms when he could have easily ensconced himself in office for life. But his real character was demonstrated a Newburgh, New York.
In March 1783 the Continental Army was in a state of near mutiny. It hadn’t been paid in over a year and anonymous leaflets were distributed indicating that the Army’s patience was at end and it intended to march on the capital and oust the Congress. On March 15 the officer corps met to decide what to do, to their surprise Washington appeared and asked to address them it what is now called the Newburgh Address. When he finished he produced a letter from a Congressman to read. He made a show of trying to read it, then produced a pair of reading glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
The mutiny evaporated.
If Thiessen wants to expand his studies of history beyond the Mount Vernon website, he might want to consider reading about an obscure American general, Ulysses S. Grant. Rather than admitting defeat as his more cultured and elegant predecessors had been willing to do, Grant knew that offensive action, even unsuccessful offensive actions, were all that yielded results. During the Overland Campaign, May-June 1864 he lost nearly as many men as there were in the Army of Northern Virginia. When asked by Washington what his plans were after the inclusive Battle of Spotsylvania, he wired, “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” Or as Lincoln said of him, “I can’t spare this man. He fights.”
But this is essentially a very silly and very un-serious piece by someone who, until this, was taken seriously by a lot of people, me included.
Of course, the Tea Party does need a George Washington. There can’t be too many George Washington’s. But that doesn’t mean the GOP is populated with modern versions of him either. Contrary to Thiessen’s history, Washington was a fighter and he was not opposed to rolling the dice if the potential payoff was high enough. At critical times Washington acted against his own interests but in the interests of the nation. And Washington didn’t get $3 billion for a dam and lock complex at Mount Vernon in return.