George Washington: A New Kind of Leader
Scholar Richard Norton Smith
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George Washington
At the start of the war, George Washington was an extremely wealthy Virginian landowner, but despite his membership in the elite, upper class, he came to represent a struggle that turned his privileged society upside down and allowed people to govern themselves. Perhaps the root of Washington’s commitment to independence can be found in his dealings with the British. Washington was painfully aware that the British saw him as inferior – no small blow for a man who sought to be the wealthiest man in Virginia. As the Revolution approached, Washington became certain that he would never be wholly accepted by the British gentry and, likewise, that unless the colonies asserted themselves against Britain, all of America would remain inferior.

When Washington was chosen to lead the Continental army, the British assumed he would be a failure. Washington had never commanded a successful operation on a major scale. In fact, the French and Indian War was essentially started by Washington’s very public defeat. Still, America needed a leader who would brand the war as “respectable.” As one of the wealthiest men in all the Colonies, the name Washington could lend that necessary sense of dignity to the Revolution.

Upon arrival to meet his army, Washington was appalled by what he saw. The men were sleeping out in the open, lacking weapons, wearing common clothes and showing no signs of the professionalism for which Washington yearned. The General decided to implement order and discipline, a lowly job that would never be done by someone at Washington’s level in a professional army. Nonetheless, Washington issued daily orders to empty the necessaries, provide clean straw for bedding and refrain from fraternizing with the enemy (a serious problem for an army who recently considered themselves British).

In addition to discipline, Washington had the challenge of forging unity out of 13 states that were, for all intensive purposes, 13 separate countries. He had to convince soldiers to fight side-by-side with distant strangers for the completely abstract idea of liberty, not for tangible things like territory, wealth or a paycheck like the British soldiers received. Washington quickly learned how difficult this would be. Soldiers were not about to run face first into open fire without a good reason. Washington was forced to accept that his soldiers needed to be convinced of the fight they were waging. He focused his efforts on persuasion, and it paid off. Washington was said to inspire loyalty from anyone who was near him, and it’s this ability to hold people together that made Washington the right General for the job.

Despite his troops’ loyalty, Washington was pummeled by British forces early in the war. In 1776, Congress was openly discussing whether or not they should replace him with another leader, but in a last-ditch effort, Washington planned a surprise offensive on Hessian troops in the famous act of crossing the Delaware. His dramatic success was followed by another victory just ten miles away. The victories were strategically minor, but they changed the entire psychological picture of the war. With these two battles, Washington became a national hero and a symbol of the Revolution.

Washington also learned to adapt his overall military strategy. Instead of relying on victories, he relied on a strategy of retreat. He believed the Revolution was a war of endurance – the country who could fight longest would win. With British war debt increasing and British popular support decreasing, his theory proved true. In 1781, with the crucial help of the French, Washington planned a major offensive to cut off the British at Yorktown. The “miraculous convergence” was a success and Washington’s long test of endurance came to a victorious end.

After the war, Washington had an incredible respect and following, but instead of taking advantage of his position, he handed his commission – a symbol of his power and authority – back to Congress. It was an electrifying event around the world. Never before had someone of his stature renounced political power at the height of greatness. In that one instant and in his ensuing Presidency, Washington re-defined what it meant to be a great leader.