Book Review: Washington as Revolutionary Deferred to Civilian Control; NONFICTION - BOOKS

By Hudson, Repps | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), February 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Book Review: Washington as Revolutionary Deferred to Civilian Control; NONFICTION - BOOKS


Hudson, Repps, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


We often think of George Washington as the sedate, dignified leader of this country, its first president who served from 1789- 1797.

We are less likely to think of him as a revolutionary, yet that's what he was. If you look at history, being a revolutionary leader often means someone who is charismatic and lusts for power, striving to put his imprint all over the government he fought hard to create.

As a result, revolutionary leaders often have gotten a bad name. Think Castro, Mao, Lenin, Robespierre.

Robert Middlekauff, emeritus professor of American history at the University of California at Berkeley, has written several books on the American Revolution. In "Washington's Revolution," a revealing and interesting portrait of the founder, Middlekauff makes one point that may be so obvious we don't even think about it: Washington shunned power and personal aggrandizement.

"He was the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws," Middlekauff writes.

Imagine how different the 226 years of American history could have been had Washington not walked away from his preeminent position as commander in chief of the Continental Army and turned it over to a rather dysfunctional Congress.

A dogged military leader who "overturned" the British empire in the late 18th century "in a struggle with immeasurable implications for the world ever since," Middlekauff writes, Washington also established a distinction that surely never occurred to Castro, Mao, Lenin and Robespierre.

He bowed to the elected representatives of his day, several years before the American system of government as we know it was established during that monumental summer of 1787 in Philadelphia, when they wrote the Constitution.

He established the basic American principle of civilian control of the military.

In Washington's day, after eight years of fighting with his underpaid soldiers who had just defeated the British, that was almost unimaginable. Never had a military leader of his power, stature and prestige done such a thing.

How was Washington able to restrain himself when his officers and men had received little pay and were assured of no pensions worth living on, yet they had made the emerging United States possible?

"There was no question of yielding power to [Congress] he had never claimed such power; he was the servant of the American people and of Congress, nothing less and nothing more," Middlekauff explains.

Middlekauff writes that Washington's fundamentally important deference to civilian control of the military sprang from his character and his knowledge of the British political system with its king, its lords and its abuse of power. …

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