POSTED RESPONSE TO A COLUMN BY NEIL REYNOLDS IN TORONTO'S GLOBE AND MAIL
Comment from another reader:
"A noble tribute to a great man."
Washington was considerably less than a great man.
His appointment as commander of the revolt in Massachusetts by the Continental Congress effectively ended the authentic little bit of popular revolution in the whole American Revolution.
When Washington assumed command, he wrote letters describing the patriots as rabble and "scum."
Washington was an extremely arrogant and aristocratic man, known in Virginia and at the continental Congress for his aloofness and coldness.
He had worked hard for a regular command as a British officer, he was a great admirer of the British Army, and he was crushingly disappointed when he didn't get it after his service in the Seven Years War.
Having no great inheritance, he set himself to making a fortune - he became one of the richest men in the Colonies. He achieved that in two ways.
One was through land speculation, on a grand scale in the very territories, further west, that the British government was trying conscientiously to keep for the native people. He would claim and survey land and then sell parcels to new immigrants. He had a reputation as a sharp trader who left more than a few with a sour feeling over their business.
Two, and most importantly, he married the richest woman in the Colonies, the widow Martha Custis, who had been left a good fortune. Theirs was not a warm and loving relationship, but kind of a cordial business deal.
As a former colonial temporary officer for the British Army during the Seven Years War, Washington felt entitled to design his own colonial’s uniform to wear in attending the Continental Congress, advertising as it were his potential services as an officer if they should be needed. It was a slightly ridiculous display, but Washington was totally in love with military life and would serve where someone would use him.
When he rode into Massachusetts and took command of the militias no one there actually had given him, he instituted flogging and hanging of troops for disobeying the strict new rules he laid down in the British tradition, and these were men who had volunteered, not to be under Washington but to serve against British occupation.
Washington was a terrible general, losing virtually every battle in which he was engaged,
winning only one clear, minor victory and another minor half-victory. The revolt succeeded not because of Washington but because first, the British were mostly half-hearted about the whole thing, and second, something little recognized by Americans, because of the French.
The two decisive victories would not have happened without the French, the first at Saratoga, a huge surprise for the British owing to the immense effort the French had made to arm Washington’s army, and two, owing to the remarkable generalship of Benedict Arnold on the American side.
Arnold, of course, was to be cast as Judas Iscariot in the official myths of the American Civic Religion. He was an immensely more talented general than Washington, and Washington, being jealous, actually worked to hold him back in promotion, which was why Arnold eventually went over to the British.
The context of being called “a traitor” is very important to understand in the American revolt, and few Americans do understand it. It has been observed that about one-third of colonists supported the revolt, about one-third opposed it (Loyalists), and about one-third were totally indifferent to the “revolution.”
A French aristocrat who came over to take a commission – a common practice for well-heeled adventurers from Europe, much as Washington’s own background with the British Army - remarked that there was more enthusiasm for the American revolt in the cafes of Paris than he observed in America.
So the so-called revolution was never a popular uprising beyond the brief local experience of those in Massachusetts who had volunteered to oppose the occupying British.
And why had the British occupied Boston? Because Americans refused to pay their taxes, taxes raised by the way mainly to pay the immense costs of the Seven Year War (aka, The French and Indian War) from which Americans greatly benefited by getting the French out of the Mississippi and Ohio River Valleys.
Not wanting to pay tax remains a recognizable trait to this day in America.
The other decisive victory was Yorktown, a battle which ended the war, but Yorktown would never have happened without the French. It was the French commander who pushed for taking advantage of the opportunity. Washington foolishly wanted to attack New York, an almost guaranteed losing proposition. It was local French commanders and experts who guided the battle, and it was French ships that blocked a British escape by sea. It was also French weapons used and French loans feeding the American troops.
Upon surrendering his command later, Washington, who always made a big deal about serving those years for no pay, submitted his expenses to the Continental Congress. Washington was a canny businessman, even if a poor general, and his contract was for no pay but all expenses, the kind of deal any defense contractor today would love having.
He submitted a bill for over 400,000 dollars, an immense amount in that day. Washington kept count of every bottle of wine he drank or served his guests, and his table was always bountifully supplied with luxuries even at Valley Forge while the common soldiers suffered terribly, and Washington demanded for every cent of it back.
He got it because the Congress was so relieved with eventual success and because he was a wealthy and influential member of the compact of families then running things.
His poor soldiers never even received all their back pay. Eventually they were given script which many sold at huge discounts to the face value because they could not wait so long for their little bit of money, that canny old Washington being one of the dealers in buying it up and eventually profiting handsomely.
The French never received any genuine gratitude for their efforts, and Washington went so far as to turn his back on poor old Tom Paine, author of influential pamphlets during the revolution, when he was thrown into prison and threatened with being guillotined during the French Revolution. Washington wouldn’t lift a finger to help him.
The French never received their generous loans back, and to this day while knowing a name or two such as Lafayette, most Americans do not understand it was the French who actually won the war.