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Washington Under Fire

ISSUE:  Spring 1941

Washington and the Revolution, a Reappraisal, By Bernhard Knollenberg. New York: The Macmillan Company. $3.00. George Washington as the French Knew Him, Edited and translated, with an introduction, by Gilbert Chinard. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $2.50.

A bsolute objectivity in the writing of history is for two reasons humanly impossible. Men may write about mice or molecules with complete detachment, but when they write of other men they must necessarily pass judgment. Moreover, the people who read history are not convinced that the truth will make them free; on the contrary, they are quite likely to find it dull and disillusioning. To be interesting, history must be dramatic; and to be acceptable it must flatter the national pride. One of the prerequisites of nationalistic history is the possession of a few shining heroes—heroes without fear and without reproach, They must be practical—even shrewd—men, but we like our heroes plain and honest. In this category we have Franklin, Washington, and Lincoln, and of these the historian must speak no evil: the public schools and their alumni would not like it if he did, Nevertheless, some slight progress toward realistic writing has been made in recent years.

Gilbert Chinard’s little volume, “George Washington as the French Knew Him,” is not of the analytical type. It presents Washington as he was seen by French officers and travelers, nearly all of whom were devoted admirers. During the Revolution he was to them the New World Cincin-natus who had left his farm to lead other farmers in their fight for freedom. Our historians have been inclined to attribute Washington’s success more to his solid moral qualities than to his abilities as a general, but the French officers looked upon him as a really talented commander. In this connection, the testimony of Baron von Steuben is significant: “. . . his advice in council has always appeared to me the best, although his modesty prevents him sometimes from sustaining it; and his predictions have generally been fulfilled. I am the more happy in giving you this opinion of my friend with all the sincerity which I feel, because some persons may perhaps attempt to deceive you on this point.”

We do not ordinarily think of Washington as a particularly modest person, but so he really was. He often distrusted his own judgment and called councils of war to make difficult military decisions, but once having made up his mind he stuck relentlessly to his purpose. Though an aristocrat by nature and fond of formalism on public occasions, he was simple and kindly at heart; and out of respect for the popular nature of the cause for which he fought, he sometimes dressed as a common soldier while in command of the Continental Army. He was usually addressed, however, as Excellency.

It was thus that his French contemporaries saw Washington. Bernhard Knollenberg’s “Washington and the Revolution, a Reappraisal” gives a radically different picture. In the preface of this much-praised volume, the author admits that Washington had several good qualities. “First and foremost,” says he, “Washington was a very brave man. . . . Equal to his bravery was his ability to keep his head in a tight spot. . . . Another admirable and valuable trait was his lack of sectionalism. . . . It is also significant that his letters contain no such remarks on the surpassing virtues of the character, manners, or talents of his neighbors as tincture those of some of the New England leaders. Allied, perhaps, was his freedom from nepotism. , . . Finally, most important of all, was the perfection of Washington’s devotion to duty. . . . for eight years, with the sole exception of two short visits during the Yorktown campaign in 1781, he was on the job, day and night, seven days a week. His pertinacity was superb.”

This appreciation would lead one to expect a fair-minded reappraisal from Mr. Knollenberg, but beyond the preface the author has no favorable word to say for the Father of His Country. We have here, in fact, an ex-lawyer’s brief in which the evidence is not weighed but weighted, purporting to show that Washington was a very shoddy character and a liar withal. This thesis is developed primarily in connection with three events: the so-called “Conway Cabal,” the surrender of Fort Washington, and the unsuccessful attempt of the French fleet to succor Lafayette in the early months of 1781.

In connection with the first incident no disparaging charges are made against Washington. Rather, the author belabors the historians who have tended to discredit the Congress, Conway, and Gates. Here his case is a fairly good one, for these officers are shown to have been fairly competent in strictly military matters, and there were good reasons why Congress should have established the Board of War. But when he goes on to say that there was no “cabal” except for one against Conway, he is only partially correct. The reviewer had already come to the conclusion, before Mr. Knoll-enberg made his “discovery,” that there was no organized movement to displace Washington from his command; but both in Congress and in the army there were those who, for their own advantage, wished to undermine the Commander-in-Chief, and both Conway and Gates were involved, Mr. Knollenberg to the contrary notwithstanding. He states that he found “no basis whatsoever for Lafayette’s suspicion that Duer was an enemy or calumniator of Washington. . . .” One may well believe it, for there is a great mass of pertinent and unimpeachable evidence which he did not find. For instance, he might refer to Mr. Chinard’s quotations from Philip Mazzei, Jefferson’s young protege” and neighbor, concerning the hostility toward Washington. But until the author can find some evidence to the contrary, Lafayette must be accepted as the more credible witness. What he, who was on the scene, saw and heard we do not know; we can only take his word for it. What Mr. Knollenberg, who did not have the privilege of moving among the Founding Fathers, failed to find—that is unconvincing evidence.

This is particularly true since one comes across such specious reasoning time and again throughout the book. To illustrate further: Mr. Knollenberg says that Washington was meticulous in keeping official letters and “Consequently, the fact that no such letter from Gates has been found among the Washington papers indicates that none was sent.” One is indeed assuming much when he assumes that a letter never existed because it cannot be found today. Another illustration is the quotation from letters of William Whipple and Henry Laurens which state plainly that Congress fled from Philadelphia very precipitately on the approach of the British troops. The author informs us that on first thought these letters might be construed as establishing the charge of timidity on the part of Congress; but, he continues, “it is common knowledge that a person is apt to speak well of his own coolness in contrast to the lack of it among his fellows, and the statements quoted above must therefore be taken with a grain of salt.” It is significant that when other statements of Henry Laurens are needed to bolster his thesis, the author accepts them at face value.

Mr. Knollenberg appears to believe that all who professed to admire and like Washington had an axe to grind. At the time of his appointment to command the army, both John Adams and Silas Deane wrote of him in glowing terms to their wives; but they did not really mean it, says the author: such tributes were intended to promote solidarity and persuade New Englanders to accept the Southern general. One would like to think that at least on such subjects as this men would write frankly to their wives! Nor was Lafayette disinterested in his friendship for Washington either, according to Mr. Knollenberg. He thirsted for military glory and toadied to his chief, flattering him in order to promote this ambition. The fact that the friendship endured long after Washington could no longer be of any service to his young friend and that the Marquis named a son for his former chief and sent the lad for an extended stay at Mount Vernon should bear witness to the Frenchman’s sincerity.

Space does not permit a detailed discussion of the charges which the author makes against Washington in connection with the capitulation of Fort Washington and the operations of the French fleet in February and March, 1781. In both cases Washington advised a course of action which was not followed, and when disaster resulted he wrote to friends and disclaimed responsibility for the results. As von Steuben explained, Washington was in the habit of deferring to the judgment of others. It would certainly have been more magnanimous for him to take the blame when such advice proved to be wrong, but Mr. Knollenberg’s charge that Washington lied in order to clear his own skirts is based on an unjustified manipulation of his evidence and on a specious line of reasoning. Of like character is his argument that Washington revealed a streak of brutality when he advocated an increase from one hundred to five hundred in the number of lashes that might be administered to culprits in the army, “so strikingly at variance with the humanitarian ideals of some of the leaders of the Revolution.” Mr. Knollenberg suppressed the following part of the letter, which shows that Washington’s object was to avoid the imposition of the death penalty in certain cases: “The highest corporal punishment we are allowed to give is a hundred lashes; between that and death there is no medium. As instances daily occur of offences for which the former is altogether inadequate, courts-martial, in order to preserve some proportion between the crime and the punishment, are obliged to pronounce sentence of death. Capital sentences on this account become more frequent in our service than in any other, so frequent as to render their execution in most cases inexpedient.” Washington was not “brutal”; on the contrary, he wanted a gradation in punishment which would save from the death sentence soldiers whom Andrew Jackson fifty years later would without compunction have ordered shot.

Various mistakes show that the author is treading unfamiliar ground, as, for instance, when he writes of Washington’s “false entries for public lands.” There was nothing illegal about buying soldiers’ bounty rights and it was quite as permissible to buy these bounty lands before they were patented as it was to buy them after the patent was obtained, Again, in writing of “Congressman John Penn of Virginia,” he displays lack of familiarity with the personnel of the Continental Congress. Indeed, he appears to have an extremely meager acquaintance with manuscript sources.

That such a book as this should have been written is not surprising, but that so eminent an historian as Professor Allan Nevins should write that “it is one of the most important contributions made to the history of the Revolution since Van Tyne’s two volumes appeared in 1922, . . . done with an expert command of all the sources, and above all with a fearlessly critical temper,” is thoroughly disconcerting.


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