Washington & Lafayette- page 2 | History | Smithsonian

Washington & Lafayette

Almost inseparable in wartime, the two generals split over a vital question: Should revolutionary ideals be imposed on others?

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

The friendship of Washington and Lafayette seems in some ways as implausible as the French-American one, almost like the setup to a joke: What does a Virginia frontiersman and grade-school dropout have in common with a moneyed French aristocrat who learned his horsemanship in the company of three future kings? Or what do you call a bumptious optimist whose best friend is a moody loner? Lafayette threw his arms around people and kissed them on both cheeks. Washington did not. Alexander Hamilton once offered to buy Gouverneur Morris dinner if he would clap Washington on the shoulder and say how great it was to see him again. When Morris complied, Washington simply, and without a word, removed Morris' hand from the sleeve of his coat and froze him with a stare.

Washington and Lafayette shared one characteristic of overriding importance, however: they were aristocrats in a monarchy—Washington self-made and Lafayette born to the manor, but both men links in a chain of favor and patronage that extended ultimately from a king, in a world where status could not be earned but had to be conferred. Both men were in this sense raised to be courtiers rather than patriots. Washington's flattery in his early letters to the royal governor of Virginia and other high officials is sometimes painful to read, and though Lafayette spurned one offer to take a place at court and complained of the cringing, fawning behavior he saw there, that was his world and background. In their time, the notion of equality was almost literally unthinkable. Distinctions of rank were implicit in the unspoken language of everyday life, embedded too deep to be much remarked on even when they were pointedly felt, as they often were. Freedom, too, was a strange concept. In both the Colonies and in France, the word "liberty" usually referred to a traditional or newly granted privilege, such as an exemption from tax. The model of "independence" that Washington held before him was that of the Virginia gentleman, whose property and wealth liberated him from dependence on anyone, even powerful friends. To declare one's independence was to declare oneself an aristocrat.

In the 18th century—in America, France and Britain alike—the ultimate test of personal success was called "fame," "glory" or "character," words that signified neither celebrity nor moral courage but referred to a person's reputation, which was also called his "honor." This sort of acclaim was not a cheap popularity divorced from achievement, as it would be in an age when people could become famous for being well known. Fame and its synonyms meant an illustrious eminence, a stature accrued from having led a consequential life. The pursuit of fame was not particularly Christian—it called for self-assertion rather than self-abnegation, competition rather than humility—but neither Washington nor Lafayette nor most of their fellow revolutionaries were serious Christians in fact, even if they were by denomination. (Asked why the Constitution failed to mention God, Hamilton supposedly said, "We forgot.") This was in the intellectual spirit of the times, which were marked by the Enlightenment's confidence in observation, empirical experiment and the rigorous application of reason grounded in fact. Discredited along with faith and metaphysics was the certainty of an afterlife, and without the prospect of spiritual immortality, the best hope of defying oblivion was to secure a place in history. In the world in which Washington and Lafayette lived, fame was the closest thing to heaven.

Finding themselves leading the struggle for the right to become something other than what birth ordained, Washington and Lafayette, in very different ways, had to win their own independence; and to watch them as they did so—making their way from courtier-subjects to patriot-citizens—is one way to see a radically new world being born, one in which the value of a life is not extrinsic and bestowed but can be earned by one's own effort.

Like other founding fathers of this new world, Washington and Lafayette started out by striving to be seen as the men they wished to be. If their motives for doing so were mixed, their commitment was not, and somewhere along the way, in a kind of moral and political alchemy, the urgings of fame and glory were transmuted into finer stuff, and their lives became enactments of high principle. This transformation hardly happened overnight—indeed, it was incomplete even at the end of their lives—but it began not long at all after they met.

Washington always said that the book from which he learned most about training an army was Instructions to His Generals by Frederick the Great, the ultimate handbook for the management of an army with officer-aristocrats. In such an army, soldiers were cannon fodder. Officers were expected to work for the love of glory and out of loyalty to the king, but their men—mostly mercenaries, criminals and ne'er-do-wells—were not to think about the cause they were fighting for (or about much of anything else, for that matter) because thought led to insubordination. Maintaining sharp social distinctions was considered essential for an army whose men would go to battle only if they feared their officers more than they feared the enemy. Not surprisingly, Frederick's manual begins with 14 rules for preventing desertion.

From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington adopted Frederick's proscriptions. "A coward," Washington wrote, "when taught to believe that if he breaks his ranks [he] will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy." Even Washington's most high-minded calls to battle included a warning that cowards would be shot.

This attitude began to change only at Valley Forge, in early 1778, with the arrival of one Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a veteran of Frederick's officer corps but a man who clearly saw beyond his own experience. Washington appointed him inspector general of the Continental Army in the hope that Steuben would shape his ragtag mass into a fighting force, and so he did, but not at all in the way that Washington had expected. In the manual Steuben wrote for this American army, the most remarkable theme was love: love of the soldier for his fellow soldier, love of the officer for his men, love of country and love of his nation's ideals. Steuben obviously intuited that a people's army, a force of citizen-soldiers fighting for freedom from oppression, would be motivated most powerfully not by fear but, as he put it, by "love and confidence"—love of their cause, confidence in their officers and in themselves. "The genius of this nation," Steuben explained in a letter to a Prussian officer, "is not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians, or French. You say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he does it; but I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and then he does it."

When Washington took command in Boston in 1775, he had been shocked by the egalitarian behavior of New England officers and men: they actually fraternized! "[O]fficers of the Massachusetts part of the Army," he wrote in disbelief to a fellow Virginian, "are nearlyof the same kidney with the Privates." He had moved aggressively to put a stop to that. Under Steuben's influence, though, Washington began to soften his attitude. The change was reflected in a new policy announced six weeks after Steuben began his training: henceforth, Washington declared, officers would ride when their men marched only when absolutely necessary, it being important for every officer to "share the fatigue as well as danger to which his men are exposed."

Motivating soldiers through affection and idealism had important practical advantages. With less danger of desertion, the Continental forces could be broken into the smaller units necessary for guerrilla fighting. It also encouraged longer enlistments. During inspections, one of Steuben's instructors would ask each man his term of enlistment. When the term was limited, he would continue his usual inspection, but when a soldier exclaimed, "For the war!" he would bow, raise his hat and say, "You, Sir, are a gentleman I perceive, I am happy to make an acquaintance with you." A soldier and a gentleman? This was a new concept for a new kind of military.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus