Generalissimo Washington: How He Crushed the Spirit of Liberty

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This article
is excerpted from Conceived
in Liberty
, Volume IV, chapters 8 and 41.

Transforms the Army

In June of
1775, George Washington was appointed Major General and elected
by Congress to be commander in chief of the American revolutionary
forces. Although he took up his tasks energetically, Washington
accomplished nothing militarily for the remainder of the year and
more, nor did he try. His only campaign in 1775 was internal rather
than external; it was directed against the American army
as he found it, and was designed to extirpate the spirit of liberty
pervading this unusually individualistic and democratic army of
militiamen. In short, Washington set out to transform a people’s
army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another
orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar
European model.

His primary
aim was to crush the individualistic and democratic spirit of the
American forces. For one thing, the officers of the militia were
elected by their own men, and the discipline of repeated elections
kept the officers from forming an aristocratic ruling caste typical
of European armies of the period. The officers often drew little
more pay than their men, and there were no hierarchical distinctions
of rank imposed between officers and men. As a consequence, officers
could not enforce their wills coercively on the soldiery. This New
England equality horrified Washington’s conservative and highly
aristocratic soul.

To introduce
a hierarchy of ruling caste, Washington insisted on distinctive
decorations of dress in accordance with minute gradations of rank.
As one observer phrased it: “New lords, new laws. … The strictest
government is taking place, and great distinction is made between
officers and soldier. Everyone is made to know his place and keep
it.” Despite the great expense involved, he also tried to stamp
out individuality in the army by forcing uniforms upon them; but
the scarcity of cloth made this plan unfeasible.

At least as
important as distinctions in decoration was the introduction of
extensive inequality in pay. Led by Washington and the other aristocratic
southern delegates, and over the objections of Massachusetts, the
Congress insisted on fixing a pay scale for generals and other officers
considerably higher than that of the rank and file.

In addition
to imposing a web of hierarchy on the Continental Army, Washington
crushed liberty within by replacing individual responsibility by
iron despotism and coercion. Severe and brutal punishments were
imposed upon those soldiers whose sense of altruism failed to override
their instinct for self-preservation. Furloughs were curtailed and
girlfriends of soldiers were expelled from camp; above all, lengthy
floggings were introduced for all practices that Washington considered
esthetically or morally offensive. He even had the temerity to urge
Congress to raise the maximum number of strikes of the lash from
39 to the enormous number of 500; fortunately, Congress refused.

In a few short
months, Washington had succeeded in extirpating a zealous, happy,
individualistic people’s army, and transforming it into yet another
statist army, filled with bored, resentful, and even mutinous soldiery.
The only thing he could not do was force the troops to continue
in camp after their terms of enlistment were up at the end of the
year, and by now the soldiers were longing for home. In addition
to all other factors, Americans were not geared – nor should
they have been – for a lengthy conflict of position and attrition;
they were not professional soldiers, and they were needed at their
homes and jobs and on their farms. Had they been a frankly guerrilla
army, there would have been no conflict between these roles.

As the end
of 1775 drew near, then, Washington’s main preoccupation was in
forging a new army to replace the 17,000 men whose terms of enlistment
were about to expire. His problems were aggravated by Congress’s
refusal to pay the bounties for enlistment New Englanders were used
to receiving; instead caste distinctions were widened even further
by raising officers’ pay, while privates’ pay remained the same.
Only 3,500 of the old army agreed to reenlist; for the rest, very
short-term enlistments of Massachusetts and New Hampshire men filled
the gap until new enlistees finally swelled the total to about 10,000.

As might have
been expected, the wealthy and aristocratic Washington, free from
money worries, had little understanding of the economic plight of
his soldiery. In contrast to the legends about his compassion, Washington
railed about the defecting troops as being possessed of a “dirty
mercenary spirit” and of “basely deserting the cause of their country.”[1]

A particularly
colorful addition to the New England troops in the Continental Army,
during the summer of 1775, was a detachment of nine enlisted companies
of expert riflemen from the back-country frontier of Pennsylvania,
Maryland, and Virginia, five of them from Pennsylvania. There were
over 1,400 of these riflemen in all. The bulk of them were hardy
Ulster Scot frontiersmen, wearing hunting outfits bearing the motto
Liberty or Death and employing the unique “Kentucky rifle,” invented
by Pennsylvania German gunsmiths. This long-barreled rifle was uniquely
suited for guerrilla warfare. It shot more accurately and over a
far longer range than the shorter musket in general use, but it
did not reload rapidly, and hence was not useful for orthodox, open-field,
positional or linear volley warfare.

It is not surprising
that these backwoodsmen proved even more individualistic and less
tolerant of coercion than the New Englanders. When they terrorized
British sentries with their sniping, Washington forbade such seemingly
disorganized practice which spent ammunition. Whenever a rifleman
was imprisoned for infringing one of Washington’s arbitrary but
cherished rules, his comrades would break into the prison and set
him free. On one occasion, virtually an entire Pennsylvania company
mutinied to try to free one of their own, and several regiments
were needed to disarm and convict the Pennsylvanians, whose penalty
consisted of less than a week’s pay. The riflemen, however, were
not so much unfit for any military service as they were “by nature
and by experience, totally unfitted for inactive life in camp.”
When the opportunity came for action for which they were suited,
they were to serve admirably.[2]

at Valley Forge

In December
of 1777, Washington sensibly prepared to take his battered and half-fed
men into winter quarters, rather than endure the rigors of another
winter campaign as they had done the previous year. He favored quarters
at Wilmington, where supplies would be plentiful and the weather
mild. Furthermore, Delaware and Maryland could be guarded, and American
boats could harass British shipping on the Delaware. The officers
favored this plan; but in deference to Pennsylvania’s howls against
letting the British army ravage the countryside, and at the suggestion
of Wayne, Washington weakly and unfortunately decided to winter
on the icy slopes of Valley Forge, to the west of Philadelphia.
Few worse locations for obtaining supplies could have been selected
than this ravaged area. Generals James Varnum and “Baron” deKalb
were particularly vehement at “wintering in this desert.”

On December
19, Washington’s army, short of food and water, poorly sheltered,
and terribly short of shoes and other clothing, staggered into the
ill-conceived camp at Valley Forge. In these conditions, disease
spread like wildfire through the camp. To obtain food, both the
American and British forces sent foraging parties to confiscate
cattle and other supplies from the hapless citizens. By the spring
of 1778, massive desertions had reduced Washington’s army to five
or six thousand men. Greene was appointed quartermaster general
in the emergency, and he was able to scrape up and confiscate enough
provisions to last the army through the winter.

During the
campaigns of 1777 a suspicion began to well up among many Americans
that Horatio
was an excellent general and Washington a miserable one,
and that maybe something should be done about it. In Congress, forced
to meet in the small town of York, Pennsylvania, it was the men
of the American Left that were restive, notably Joseph Lovell and
Sam Adams of Massachusetts. Dr. Benjamin Rush, a leading Pennsylvania
liberal and chief physician in Washington’s army, urged his replacement
by “a Gates, Lee, or Conway,” Thomas Conway being a capable Irish-born
French general recently commissioned in the Continental Army. In
November 1777, Congress advanced a step toward erecting a professional
bureaucracy by creating a five-man Board of War, not composed of
members of Congress, to supervise the army. As chairman of the board,
Congress appointed the hero Gates, who was then too ill for field
command. This apparent attempt to downgrade Washington and elevate
Gates never got underway, in fact never reached the stature of an
organized campaign. Indeed, no one in Congress ever proposed the
replacement of Washington or even the curtailing of his powers.

Two major factors
contributed to the crushing of any murmurs of dissent against the
commander in chief. One was Washington’s ruthless use of an indiscretion
he discovered – a letter critical of him sent by Gates to Conway.
Washington and his influential friends immediately conjured up a
nonexistent widespread “plot,” the mythical “Conway Cabal,” supposedly
designed to scuttle Washington. Both Rush and Conway were soon forced
out of the army by the vindictive Washington.

Conway’s fall
(and subsequent emigration) and Gates’s decline were also spurred
by a madcap plan Gates had for another expedition to invade Canada
and possibly take Montreal. This proposed expedition was to be independent
of Washington’s command, and was to be headed by the vain young
French Catholic volunteer, the Marquis de Lafayette, in a rather
farfetched scheme to appeal to the French Canadian masses. But Lafayette,
ever worshipful of his patron Washington, refused to be independent
of his commander in chief, and bitterly denounced the supposed conspirator
Conway as responsible for an intrigue against Washington. When the
proposed expedition fell through in March 1778, the failure hastened
the demise of all incipient opposition to Washington. The Board
of War fell into a decline, and Gates, in virtual disgrace, and
subject to Washington’s continuing vengeance, was assigned a tiny
and innocuous command on the Hudson highlands.

Thus, history
had dealt in high irony with the victors at Saratoga. Gates, after
the winter of 1777–78, was relegated out of the action, to a minor
command; Arnold, seriously wounded and crippled at Bemis Heights,
was never again to bear arms for the United States; and Schuyler,
who, for all his faults, had after all harried and delayed Burgoyne
in his march from Skenesboro, was in disgrace, suspected –
with some justice – of treason. He too was never again to serve
in the army; though eventually acquitted at court-martial for his
actions at Ticonderoga, he left the army shortly after. Of the main
victors over Burgoyne, only Daniel
was to continue in action – and even he was soon
to be treated shabbily by George Washington. Meanwhile, Washington,
the architect of defeat, surmounted a flurry of opposition and continued
more firmly in command than ever.

As if the ragged
soldiers at Valley Forge did not have enough troubles, they were
to be further plagued by the arrival, in February, of a mendacious
Prussian braggart and soldier of fortune calling himself “Baron
von Steuben.”
Actually, Captain Steuben was neither a baron
nor, as he claimed, a Prussian general; but he managed quickly to
be elevated to the post of inspector general of the Continental
Army. Steuben set about to Prussianize the American army, and so
now the hapless soldiery suffered the infliction of the whole structure
of petty and meaningless routine designed to stamp out individuality
and transform the free and responsible soldier into an automaton
subject to the will of his rulers.

since he had embarked on the Philadelphia campaign, Washington had
grown ever further away from the guerrilla tactics that had won
him victory at Trenton (and had defeated Burgoyne). Washington had
no desire to become a guerrilla chieftain; to his aristocratic temper
the only path to glory was through open, frontal combat as practiced
by the great states of Europe. Washington had tried this formula,
and lost dismally at Brandywine and at Germantown, but this experience
taught him no real lessons. He was delighted to have Steuben continue
the process he himself had begun in the first year of war of imposing
petty enslavement upon a body of free men. Until recently, historians
have rhapsodized uncritically over the benefits of Steuben’s training,
of the enormous difference in the army’s performance. But Washington’s
and his army’s performance was equally undistinguished before and
after Steuben; any differences were scarcely visible.

In the midst
of this Prussianizing of the American army, Charles
was released in a prisoner exchange in early April. While
Washington and Steuben were taking the army in an ever more European
direction, Lee in captivity was moving the other way – pursuing
his insights into a fullfledged and elaborated proposal for guerrilla
warfare. He presented his plan to Congress, as a “Plan for the Formation
of the American Army.”

Bitterly attacking
Steuben’s training of the army according to the “European Plan,”
Lee charged that fighting British regulars on their own terms was
madness and courted crushing defeat: “If the Americans are servilely
kept to the European Plan, they will … be laugh’d at as a bad army
by their enemy, and defeated in every [encounter]… . [The idea]
that a decisive action in fair ground may be risqued is talking
nonsense.” Instead, he declared that “a plan of defense, harassing
and impeding can alone succeed,” particularly if based on the rough
terrain west of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. He also urged
the use of cavalry and of light infantry (in the manner of Dan Morgan),
both forces highly mobile and eminently suitable for the guerrilla

This strategic
plan was ignored both by Congress and by Washington, all eagerly
attuned to the new fashion of Prussianizing and to the attractions
of a “real” army. Lee made himself further disliked by expressing
yearnings for a negotiated peace, with full autonomy for America
within the British Empire. During his year in captivity, it seems
he had partially reverted to the position of the English Whigs.
He did not realize that the United States was now totally committed
to independence, and that peace terms that would have been satisfactory
three years earlier would no longer do. Too much should not be made
of this, however; General Sullivan, in his earlier term of captivity,
had also been temporarily persuaded of similar views.

On reaching
camp in late May, Lee soon embittered Washington by scorning Washington’s
abilities, and praising Gates’s in a letter to his friend Benjamin
Rush. He did succeed, however, in having Steuben’s powers curtailed.
He also increased his unpopularity by objecting to – though
reluctantly taking – a loyalty oath of allegiance to the United
States and repudiating Great Britain, an oath forced upon every
officer in the army. The old scourge of the Tories, the coercer
of loyalty oaths, seemed to be growing soft.

During the
winter of 1777–78, Howe lost his last opportunity to crush Washington’s
army. Only twenty miles away, and drilling for open combat, it would
have been easy prey. But Howe and his troops remained in Philadelphia:
while the Americans froze, starved, and drilled, they reveled and
partied, luxuriously enjoying the victuals, wine, and women of Philadelphia.

On May 18,
Washington, chafing at the inactivity, sent out a force of 2,200
men – one-third of his army – for a reconnaissance in
force against the British. He placed in command of this pointless
foray the Marquis de Lafayette, who was apparently being rewarded
for his assiduous flattery of the commander in chief. Now he could
have his own command and end his pouting; but 2,200 men seems an
extravagant price for soothing Washington’s protégé.

Lafayette advanced
to Barren Hill, only two miles north of the British lines, and settled
down to wait. He did not have to wait long. Howe, about to be replaced
by Clinton as commander in chief, was determined to end his term
on a triumphal note by capturing the young Frenchman. But Lafayette,
nearly surrounded, managed to elude the enemy with his troops and
to speed back home without fighting a major battle.

Upon the collapse
of Burgoyne, General Howe – joined by his brother – submitted
his resignation. After furious objections by Howe’s well-placed
friends and relatives, Germain replaced him with General Clinton,
who assumed command in mid-May. With the end of Howe’s term, the
last chance for a quick crushing of the American forces had gone,
for France was entering the war on the American side. For Britain,
the character of the war had now unpleasantly changed; from trying
to teach a lesson to revolutionaries, Britain now faced an international,
trans-Atlantic, even a worldwide conflict.

The first thing
to do was end the occupation of Philadelphia, which at best had
been a waste of time. Howe had thought of Philadelphia as equivalent
to a European capital: the hub and nerve center of administrative,
commercial, political, and military life. But in a decentralized
people’s war such as the Americans were waging, there was no fixed
nerve center; indeed, there was scarcely any central government
at all. All this gave the Americans a flexibility and an ability
to absorb invading armies in a manner highly statified Europe could
not understand.


Willard M. Wallace, Appeal
to Arms: A Military History of the American Revolution

(Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1951), pp. 54–55.

Christopher Ward, The
War of the Revolution
(New York: Macmillan, 1952), 1:108.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School,
founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of
the Mises Institute. He was
also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his literary
executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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