Winter of Discontent

Even as he endured the hardships of Valley Forge, George Washington faced another challenge: critics who questioned his fitness to lead

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Within Congress, a growing recognition of Washington’s extraordinary leadership at Valley Forge—not only was he preventing the Continental army from dissolving, he was some-how inspiring his men under the cruelest of conditions—made a profound impression. Joseph Jones, a congressman from Virginia and a long-standing friend to Washington, wrote to offer his support: “The same equal and disinterested conduct, the same labor and attention, which you have manifested in the public service from the first of the contest, will shield and protect you from the shafts of envy and malevolence.”

Still, Washington decided the time had come to take up the festering matter of a letter that Conway had written to Gates that autumn, which referred to a “weak general” who might prove the ruin of America.

He had learned of the letter when one of Gates’ own aides had disclosed its contents to an officer loyal to Washington. When Gates discovered that the letter had been leaked to Washington, he wrote to him, demanding the identity of the “wretch” who had “stealingly copied” his private correspondence. Bent on dramatizing his challenge to the commander in chief’s integrity, Gates sent a copy of this letter to Congress.

It would prove an enormous blunder. Washington was, quite rightly, able to take the high ground when he replied to the slander. Why, he inquired of Congress, would anyone want to add needlessly to the burdens on the beleaguered legislature, pestering it with details of a personal disagreement? He pointed out that he had learned of the malicious Conway letter to Gates through an indiscretion by one of Gates’ own aides. Washington added that he had not previously gone public with the matter because he was “desirous . . . of concealing every matter that could give the smallest interruption to the tranquillity of this army.” In the end, the episode caused the hero of Saratoga, and Conway along with him, to appear small-minded and vindictive.

But what conclusively undermined Washington’s critics was the recognition that, whatever his shortcomings, Washington remained the individual who most represented the cause of liberty in the minds of the American people and its army. Mercy Otis Warren reported to her husband, Continental Navy Board member James Warren, that “The toast among the soldiers” is “Washington or no Army.” Thomas Paine, the conscience and primary propagandist of the Revolution, expressed the fervent hope that he could “shame [Washington’s critics]” or at least “convince them of their error.”


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