Book Review: Washington’s Crossing, by David Hackett Fischer

As our republic is ground to nothing between the boulders of socialism and populism – the abyssus abyssum invocat of our two-party system – it seems pointless except as an act of masochism to read anything about its founding and early history. Our institutions of freedom have been so glibly discarded that books about them can amount only to quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, immersion in which would make anyone weak and weary indeed.

Neverthehoo, old habits die hard, and this year, with a gap in my reading list and with July Fourth approaching, I decided to re-read David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, which I’d assigned myself as a morale-booster in the years after 9/11. (External blows stimulated my interest in the history of American freedom; self-inflicted ones killed it.) I’d remembered Fischer’s book for its stress on the ideological aspect of the Revolution and can now report that my memory was in this case true. Washington’s Crossing illustrates how different people (not just British, Germans, and Americans but different groups of Americans such as New Englanders, Virginians, and backwoodsmen) took different views of freedom and related it differently to ideals of equality and social order. My favorite players in this story are the Philadelphia Associators, radical egalitarians, who went so far as to design their uniform to “level all distinctions.” (p. 27)

An important subplot of the book details how George Washington, accustomed to believe in “liberty [within] a system of stratification” (p. 14), became general of an army composed of men (like the Associators) who saw freedom in a different light. As such, Fischer’s book is a study of leadership. Now, leadership today has become something of a fetish, with a cottage industry of how-to courses and its own section in the bookstore. Understood vaguely, leadership can encompass both democratic and undemocratic modes of motivation. Washington’s stereotypical embodiment of leadership is something that should be subjected – as it is in this book – to careful analysis, to yield a more precise conception of how it should function in a democratic society. Fischer’s book starts with an image of Washington as leader – the one in Emmanuel Leutze’s painting Washington Crossing the Delaware – in which he is shown with a telescope, symbolizing “a statesman’s vision.” (p. 2) Someone who leads by virtue of his unique sense of vision calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which Socrates opines that only he with the true view of reality is qualified to be king. Indeed it was quite common in the before time to believe that kings were crowned by a special endowment such as vision, and I hope that readers of this review know that such a belief is as obsolete as kings are themselves.

Thankfully, Fischer uses the picture of Washington as the true-seeing leader only as a starting point and argues in the rest of his book that the real Washington was a leader of a different sort. At one point, he distinguishes democratic leadership from its non-democratic cousins by quoting Washington himself: “A people unused to restraint must be led; they will not be drove.” (p. 6) At another two places, Fischer draws important distinctions in his own words, remarking that Washington functioned “not only as a leader but a comrade in arms” and “more as a leader than a commander.” (pp. 251, 366) Elsewhere, Fischer employs a qualifier (“consultative leadership”), provides an example (“It was typical of Washington’s style of leadership to present a promising proposal as someone’s else’s idea”), and uses words besides “leading” to describe what Washington was doing (“listening, responding, encouraging, persuading.”) (pp. 265-266)

Since Fischer takes such pains to define Washington’s mode of leadership so narrowly, to the point of having to find better words for it, the reader may conclude that it scarcely warrants the term. (As for Washington’s using other people’s ideas, Fischer reports that the plan to attack at Trenton may have originated with Washington’s adjutant, Joseph Reed, and that the campaign that led to both second Trenton and Princeton was opened by the Associators – and not the officers but the men. If true, these cases stretch the definition of leadership about as far as it can go. [pp. 201-203, 265]) In fact, leadership has long been understood as a paradox, something so dependent on subtlety that it only functions in the absence of its assertion. Laozi’s injunction to “preside yet not control” (Daodejing, ch. 10) is typical of this paradox and seems to anticipate Washington.

The issue with Washington was that he initially failed to grasp leadership’s paradoxical nature and was thus forced to learn on the job. The first part of Fischer’s book is a catalogue of his slowness to learn. He ordered his troops not to plunder farmers, to no avail. He forbade them from visiting prostitutes, with the same result. He insisted that the Connecticut Light Horsemen get rid of their mounts and serve as infantry, causing them, after a brief period of conditional obedience, to leave the army (thereby depriving it of their service as scouts).  (pp. 85-86) Encountering a group of militiamen fleeing the British at Kip’s Bay, Washington beat their officers and dashed his hat on the ground. (p. 104)

The main crisis occurred on the eve of second Trenton, when many soldiers’ enlistments were set to expire. Washington’s expression of vexation on the occasion is interesting for its repetition of the word liberty, once as a cause and once as a curse: “‘The great and radical Evil which pervades our whole System & like an Ax at the Tree of our safety, Interest, and Liberty here again shews its baleful influence – Tomorrow the Continental Troops are all at liberty.’” (p. 270)

“If Washington hoped to remain in the field,” Fischer notes, “he had to persuade some of his veterans to stay with him.” In the event, Washington resorted to bribery and begging, authorizing a ten dollar bounty for an additional six weeks of service (another idea borrowed from someone else) and imploring his men,

‘My brave fellows, you have done all I asked you to do and more than could be reasonably expected; but your country is at stake, your wives, your houses, and all that you hold dear. You have worn yourselves out with the fatigues and hardships, but we know not how to spare you. If you will consent to stay one month longer, you will render that service to the cause of liberty and to your country, which you probably can never do under any other circumstances.’

Two such appeals were necessary, and even then the deciding factor was individual soldiers encouraging each other to stay. As Fischer summarizes, “Only a few days before, Washington was infuriated with these men and ready to clap some of them in irons. Now he was leading them in another way. This gentleman of Virginia was learning to treat a brigade of New England Yankee farmboys and fishermen as men of honor, who were entitled to equality of esteem.”  (pp. 271-273)

There’s at least a little bit of American exceptionalism operating here. For a gentleman to address once-thought-of inferiors as fellow gentlemen and to give up commanding in favor of entreating them was truly extraordinary. (Fischer discusses the evolving use of the term gentlemen and shows that the deemphasizing of formal status and prevalence of consultative leadership would have been unthinkable in British ranks. [pp. 273, 315-316, 331]) Washington could only resign himself to egalitarianism in a polyglot Yankee society in which no one was entitled to tell another what to do. Others were forced to accommodate as well. The immigrant officer Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben wrote home to a Prussian friend, “You say to your soldier ‘Do this and he doeth it’; but I am obliged to say [to the American soldier]: ‘This is the reason you ought to do that’: and then he does it.” ( Sometime later, we are told, Abraham Lincoln, as a militia captain, once issued an order, only to be told to go to hell. (

For this reminder that, in spite of everything, Americans can’t be driven like cattle (and often, as we are daily reminded, speak out of turn), I’m grateful for my Fourth of July reading.

Writing on Flags

Writing on flags is an underrated pastime. The American flag lends itself to sloganizing, owing to its college-ruled design; and the experience can be philosophical and meditative.

My favorite personalized flag is the Spinoza flag. Pictured above is my current version, finished today. It replaces one done a few years ago (pictured below), which became frayed. I found that the gold lettering didn’t show up very well.

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The translation is “The purpose of the republic is freedom.” (Spinoza put in a few extra words.)

My wife, a superior artist, produced the following design on canvas:

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The inscription comes from the Greek statesman Cleisthenes and is an injunction “Not to Notice the Tribes.”

The missus also is a better forger of Abraham Lincoln’s signature than I am:

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