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.” (https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/baron-von-steuben-180963048/) Sometime later, we are told, Abraham Lincoln, as a militia captain, once issued an order, only to be told to go to hell. (https://www.historynet.com/black-hawk-war)

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.

Book Review: Iola Leroy, by Frances E.W. Harper

Frances E.W. Harper’s Iola Leroy is a portrait of slavery and its aftermath in mid-19th century America. It focuses on two protagonists of mixed race, the mother and daughter Marie and Iola Leroy, to illustrate the absurdity of American slavery: One moment, the two light-skinned women are paragons of gentility – with Iola going so far as to defend slavery at her Northern girls’ school – the next moment, they are slaves.

Covering the Civil War and emancipation, Iola Leroy is an inspiring story of liberation. As Harper narrates, “The lost cause went down in blood and tears, and on the brows of a ransomed people God poured the chrism of a new era, and they stood a race newly anointed with freedom.” (p. 138)

As one of Harper’s characters recounts:

‘When de war war ober an’ de sogers war still stopping’ yere, I made pies an’ cakes, sole em to de sogers, an’ jist made money han’ ober fist. An’ I kep’ on a workin’ an’ a savin’ till my ole man got back from de war wid his wages and his bounty money. I felt right set up an’ mighty big wen we counted all dat money. We had neber seen so much money in our lives befo’, let alone hab it fer ourselbes. An’ I sez, “John, you take dis money an’ git a nice place wid it.”’

(In fact, Aunt Linda and husband John do manage to buy a plot of land from some friendly Jews.) (pp. 154-155)

A third observer is “delighted at the thrift and industry” well in evidence in the postbellum South, as its people taste their first draft of freedom. (p. 153)

However, even as the freedmen adapt to liberty with manifest “thrift and industry,” Harper’s more elite protagonists remain convinced of their need for shepherding. At a meeting of self-appointed black leaders, described in the chapter called “Friends in Council,” one speaker laments “‘the fearful grinding and friction which comes in the course of an adjustment of the new machinery of freedom in the old ruts of slavery.’” (p. 255) Another poetizes, “‘Oh, children of the tropics, / Amid our pain and wrong / Have you no other mission / Than music, dance, and song? / When through the weary ages / Our dripping tears still fall, / Is this a time to dally / With pleasure’s silken thrall?’” (pp. 251-252) Discussing the possibility of freedmen emigration, yet another speaker warns against “‘emptying on the shores of Africa a horde of ignorant, poverty-stricken people.’” (pp. 246-247) More than one participant at the meeting voices alarm at the freedmen’s susceptibility to drink, an ironic echo of the argument against black enfranchisement then being made by the unreconstructed.

Naturally, these intellectuals see themselves as the rectifiers of their people’s supposed defects. “‘I do not think,’” says one, “‘that we can begin too early to teach our boys to be manly and self-respecting, and our girls to be useful and self-reliant.’” Iola agrees: “‘We must instill into our young people that the true strength of a race means purity in women and uprightness in men.’” (pp. 253-254) Another concerned person characterizes this civilizing we as “‘a union of women with the warmest hearts and clearest brains to help in the moral education of the race.’” (p. 254) This note of paternalism (or maternalism) is sounded with breathtaking self-confidence and presumption, in ways that harken (again, ironically) to the old paternalism of the planters.

It is the opinion of the reviewer that the new birth of freedom in the mid-19th century, which affected not only America but also such places as Russia (where serfs were emancipated in 1861), inspired great panic on the part of the elite. On the one hand, deposed masters such as the gentry of the American South contrived to recover their position. On the other hand, intellectuals, often the same people who had welcomed servile emancipation, now regarded the newly liberated masses (or newly enfranchised masses like Irish immigrants) as unfit for self-rule. They either looked the other way when the aristos returned to power or, more adventurously, sought to take the aristos’ places under the guise of enlightened (or even revolutionary) leadership.

Iola Leroy is a case study of this latter approach. Civil War liberation epic that it is, Harper’s novel actually becomes rather preoccupied with the reimposition of hierarchy; it is more representative of the thermidorian reaction of the postbellum Reconstruction or Gilded Age years, when new elites sought to supplant old. The book was published in 1892. Significantly, one of its characters, during the above-mentioned friendly council, takes stock of the recent years’ broken chains in a somewhat dispirited way (““Millions of slaves and serfs have been liberated during this century, but not even in semi-barbaric Russia, heathen Japan, or Catholic Spain has slavery been abolished through such a fearful conflict as it was in the United States.’”) before turning his attention to alcohol (“‘The liquor traffic still sends its floods of ruin and shame to the habitations of men.’”), implying that the freedman remains in a degraded state, from which only a redoubled effort, no doubt by those with the warmest hearts and clearest brains, can redeem him (for as yet “‘no political party has been found with enough moral power and numerical strength to stay the tide of death.’”). (p. 250) The reader will have noted that ordinary freedmen are shown by Harper to speak in dialect, while their aspiring redeemers orate in formal English, as though the author were suggesting almost-organic differences between them, justifying the need for guidance.

Even before the friendly council, Harper’s heroine aspires to fill the need. She hopes, in plain language, to become a teacher, but she spreads her enthusiasm a bit thick:

‘To be,’ continued Iola, ‘the leader of a race to higher planes of thought and action, to teach men clearer views of life and duty, and to inspire their souls with loftier aims, is a far greater privilege than it is to open the gates of material prosperity and fill every home with sensuous enjoyment.’ (p. 219)

In fact, Iola feels well qualified for the role. “‘I should be very glad to have an opportunity to teach,’ said Iola. ‘I used to be a great favorite among the colored children on my father’s plantation.’” (p. 145)

Thus does yesterday’s mistress become today’s missionary, retaining her seat at the head of her constituency, with the relation of superior to subordinate preserved.

A Meditation on Freedom and Equality, Inspired by The Last of the Wine

Though freedom and equality are the warp and woof of American life, some difference of opinion exists as to how to they are related. For example, the argument between the political left and right may be viewed as one of ends versus means, with those on the left believing that equality is the key to freedom and those on the right believing the opposite.

In Mary Renault’s The Last of the Wine, a remark made by Lysis suggests another relationship between freedom and equality:

I want a City where I can find my equals and respect my betters, whoever they are.

In other words, equality is a subset of freedom: the freedom to recognize our equals (and betters) without having them recognized for us.

It’s interesting that while searching for his equals and betters, Lysis mentions no inferiors. Perhaps he is conscious that he lives surrounded by people possessing talents he lacks, and that absent an unfree system of imposed social classes, designed to denigrate most talent as menial, the notion of inferiority is meaningless. Thus does Melville’s Ahab, in contemplation of his ship’s carpenter, lament, “Here I am, proud as a Greek god, and yet standing debtor to this blockhead for a bone to stand on!” More acceptingly, I reflect that when I summon a plumber to my house, the very reason for my doing so is that he can do at least one thing I cannot. In him, therefore, and in enjoyment of the freedom imagined by Lysis, I see only an equal or a better.