Many characteristics of today’s Army come from George Washington’s leadership: He integrated the militia and the Regular Army; emphasized the role of officers and sergeants; introduced discipline, training and values as key attributes of America’s Army; ensured all soldiers were treated with dignity and respect due a citizen of a democracy; and held civil control over the military as vital to a republic.
Often overlooked, however, is Washington’s reading habit. He was a voracious, practical reader, educating himself, in part, through his reading program.
The purpose of this essay is to encourage contemporary professionals to adopt Washington’s habit by providing a short history and bibliography for the study of his development as a leader during the Revolutionary War.
Washington’s tactical and operational education occurred during the French and Indian War. He first was a special courier for the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, in 1753, leading a small team of six from Virginia to the vicinity of Fort Duquesne (now Pittsburgh). His mission: link up with friendly Native Americans, evaluate the location of a possible British fort to thwart French expansion in the Ohio Territory, find and meet the commander of French forces and instruct him to evacuate Virginia territory. He was 21 years old.
Washington accomplished all but one of his key tasks. The response from the French commander was, “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.” So, Washington and his team trudged back to Virginia in a perilous, high-adventure journey to render his report.
The following year, he led a group of 300 men, charged with finding and ejecting the French forces in the Ohio Territory. He found them, he fought them and he surrendered to them following the Battle of Fort Necessity. In the fight preceding the main battle, Washington’s group ambushed a small French party, killed a diplomat and touched off the French and Indian War. It was especially sensitive because in the French surrender document, which Washington signed even though he couldn’t read it, he admitted to the “assassination” of the French diplomat—not exactly a career-enhancing move.
Read about these tactical experiences in Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life or, for a more detailed account, Peter Stark’s Young Washington: How Wilderness and War Forged America’s Founding Father.
Washington’s third and fourth missions elevated his learning from the tactical to the operational level. In 1755, he joined Maj. Gen. Edward Braddock’s personal staff on a campaign to defeat the French at Fort Duquesne and take possession of the fort. The mission ended in a humiliating defeat. Braddock’s forces found themselves in a baited attack on ideal terrain (from the enemy’s standpoint) along the Monongahela River. The British were decimated, and Braddock was mortally wounded.
Washington took command in the heat of battle and, through courageous leadership, saved the remnants of the British expedition.
Then, in 1758, following several years of commanding Virginia militia along the frontier, Washington joined Brig. Gen. John Forbes. The Forbes campaign accomplished what Braddock failed to do. The French ultimately abandoned Fort Duquesne ahead of Forbes’ arrival.
Read about Washington’s operational-level experiences in Stark’s Young Washington; David Preston’s Braddock’s Defeat: The Battle of the Monongahela and the Road to Revolution; and Chernow’s Washington.
More Seasoning Needed
Washington learned about tactical leadership, frontier-style fighting, campaigning in the American wilderness and commanding large organizations. However, this learning was insufficient for a commander in chief of American forces. Though rugged and courageous, the young Washington was simply too impetuous, argumentative and immature. He needed more development. He got it as the manager of Mount Vernon, a Virginia burgess elected first from Fredrick then Fairfax County, a vestryman in two parishes and a judge. From 1758 through 1775, Washington became the kind of leader the Second Continental Congress sought: a leader in the revolutionary movement, a nationally recognized leader, someone who could be trusted to preserve republican values, as well as a person with military experience.
Washington’s revolutionary leadership emerged slowly, in reaction to the series of acts the British Parliament imposed on the American Colonies. First came the Revenue and Currency Acts (1764); then the Stamp and Quartering Acts (1765); the Declaratory Act (1766); the Townshend Acts (1767); and the Port Act and three others that together were called the Coercive (or Intolerable) Acts (1774). The Stamp Act, Townshend Acts and others were partially repealed, but Parliament never yielded its right to tax the Colonies. Colonial activists reacted in two, interrelated, ways: economic and political. Washington emerged as a leader in both.
Economic resistance took the form of nonimportation associations designed to persuade British merchants and manufacturers to pressure Parliament to remove taxes and duties. Washington, with 100 other Virginians, signed an agreement pledging to prevent implementation of the Stamp Act. Then he played a role in each of Virginia’s three associations. In the first (1769) and second (1770), he helped incorporate merchants and establish local enforcement committees. The most comprehensive association followed the Coercive Acts of 1774. Washington played so significant a role in this association that each printed agreement had, in his own hand, a paragraph pledging the citizens of Fairfax County to abide by the association’s terms. This third association was ultimately used by the First Continental Congress in 1774 as the model for the first trans-Colonial association. Washington’s leadership helped him rise to national prominence.
Political resistance took the form of petitions to the British king and Parliament, arguing that American Colonists were British citizens, so they could not be deprived of an essential British liberty—i.e., laws imposing taxes must be enacted only by representatives chosen by the people. Revolutionary leaders, Washington among them, used this argument to explain the necessity of the nonimportation associations’ actions; bind the leaders and their Colonies to each other and slowly create an inter-Colonial movement.
Ramping Up a Revolution
Waves of declarations, memorials and petitions flowed from multiple Colonies. Circular letters were exchanged between Colonial leaders and legislatures. Rigid British responses and the passage of increasingly repressive laws also brought the Colonies closer. When the British repealed the Townsend Acts in 1770—except for the tea tax—the platform for economic resistance lost momentum. But as the Boston Tea Party of December 1773 demonstrated, the political argument gained steam. Boston’s raw defiance goaded King George III’s government to send four regiments to Boston, enraging many—Washington among them.
Virginia’s royal governor, John Murray, dissolved the assembly of burgesses to prevent it from adopting aggressive resolutions in response to the unrest in Boston, but the burgesses moved down the street to Williamsburg’s Raleigh Tavern. There, they signed a document denouncing the Coercive Acts and proclaiming a boycott of East India Company tea. Washington sent a letter to George William Fairfax on June 10, 1774, saying, “Americans will never be tax’d without their own consent” and that the cause of Boston “is and ever will be considered as the cause of America.”
In July, Washington hosted Virginia leaders to work on 24 resolutions known as the Fairfax County Resolves, which appeared in the Virginia Gazette and then in newspapers across America. The Fairfax County Resolves became the Virginia Resolves, and Washington’s Virginia Association became the platform Virginia advanced at the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia on Sept. 5, 1774. At the Congress, Washington—now 42 years old—concentrated on meeting other delegates. He attended so many private parties that few delegates would leave Philadelphia without coming to know him and, more importantly, trust him.
During this period, Washington also transformed Mount Vernon. To face the increasingly difficult economic times, Washington radically changed nearly every dimension of Mount Vernon’s management. It was a tobacco-based plantation and, by 1764, Washington was in debt. Washington had to reduce debt and increase profit. Improving Mount Vernon’s self-sufficiency and lowering costs would help accomplish the former; for the latter, he diversified crops, produced other goods, organized better and expanded other revenue streams. Washington began measuring everything using modern management techniques: time/motion studies, input/output metrics and the efficiency of Mount Vernon’s use of transportation. By the time he left to command the Continental Army, he had turned Mount Vernon around.
Read about Washington’s strategic political- and managerial-level experiences in David Stewart’s George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father; Robert O’Connell’s Revolutionary: George Washington at War; Chernow’s Washington; Bruce Allen Ragsdale’s 1985 University of Virginia dissertation entitled “Nonimportation and the Search for Economic Independence in Virginia, 1765–1775”; and Merrill Jensen’s The Founding of a Nation: A History of the American Revolution, 1763–1776.
Leader of Leaders
A new generation of American political leaders emerged from 1760 to 1775, and Washington was a leader of leaders. Together, his development in the French and Indian War (tactical and operational experiences) and as revolutionary and manager during the pre-major combat operations phase of the Revolutionary War (strategic political and managerial experiences) were the foundation of his leadership during the major combat operations of 1775–81. In this phase, Washington had several major tasks: win the war and eject the British from the Colonies; build and sustain an army that could achieve that end; and do both in such a way that a government consistent with the principles of the Declaration of Independence emerged.
The ability to juggle these three civil-military tasks was a feat of strategic leadership arguably greater than any American general has ever faced. In executing each, Washington collaborated and coordinated with the Continental Congress extensively through letters and personal visits. He also engaged extensively with multiple state legislatures and leaders, for in many ways he was leading as much a coalition of the willing as a national army.
Finally, his leadership did not end in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia. His leadership extended into a post-major combat operations period that lasted at least until the Treaty of Paris in 1783.
Read about the challenges Washington faced and how he “put it all together,” although sometimes just in the nick of time, in Don Higginbotham’s The War of American Independence: Military Attitudes, Policies, and Practice, 1763–1789; James Thomas Flexner’s George Washington in the American Revolution, 1775–1783; O’Connell’s Revolutionary; Chernow’s Washington; David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing; and David Head’s A Crisis of Peace: George Washington, the Newburgh Conspiracy and the Fate of the American Revolution.
Though this brief history and limited bibliography is incomplete, it provides readers with an adequate starting point. Washington’s development as a leader was as complex and broad as his service to the nation. Perhaps military professionals can pay back at least part of the debt owed to Washington by understanding him more completely.
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.