Logan Beirne has written a book that connects the past with the present. It is a historical review of how George Washington conducted himself during the American Revolution and set precedents which all subsequent Presidents have felt the weight of, whether or not they chose to be guided by them. Fortunately for the people of the United States, most Presidents since Washington’s time have seen fit to conform to the outline of the role shaped by the Father of our country – at least to some degree.
Beirne’s book is part biography and part lesson. In this it is somewhat reminiscent to Ray Raphael’s book Mr. President (reviewed here.) However, Beirne uses more examples from Washington’s early career than does Raphael. Where Raphael’s book is an exploration of the power of the Presidency, Beirne’s focuses on the President’s role as Commander in Chief. Where Raphael’s is a study in power, Beirne’s is a study in restraint.
From a biographical standpoint The Blood of Tyrants doesn’t have much new to offer to anyone who’s read Chernov’s excellent biography (reviewed here.) However, unlike a straightforward history, Beirne’s point in writing this book is to draw conclusions about how Washington’s behavior affected the future of the country he fought so hard for.
While history snobs (some academics) will undoubtedly sneer at the “presentism” (as Beirne calls it) in the book, I could not find any factual errors and Beirne has an impressive collection of references in the back of the book, encompassing nearly a hundred pages of notes and bibliographical material. So, if unorthodox as a book of history, the scholarship is sound.
Beirne’s book might have been called Lessons in Leadership, or The Forging of The Commander in Chief. He doesn’t spend any time to speak of on Washington’s role as a peacetime president, but instead takes the reader through pivotal actions and decisions made by Washington throughout the course of the American Revolution. Beirne succeeds in his quest to illustrate the relevancy of George Washington to present day America, but does so deftly rather than clumsily as many well-intentioned admirers of the founders have done (this reviewer might be included within that group.) Instead Beirne illustrates how Washington was a model for character and dignity. Such virtues naturally lend themselves to leadership and example.
Washington was a thoughtful and contemplative man with a vision for the future of United States that he never wavered from pursuing. He measured all of his actions with regard to how they would be perceived and in terms what effect they would have for the future. Washington loathed expedience, but was not afraid to make bold decisions and take strong actions. However, he never made a decision without being aware of its consequences. Perhaps one of the most powerful depictions of this is Washington’s reaction to the looting of civilian homes by his starving troops. In spite of the exigencies of war, he refused to abuse the sweeping powers granted to him by Congress.
Washington even went so far as to execute a member of his personal guard for taking supplies from an obstinate Tory. He had entrusted this guard, John Herring, with obtaining supplies from the countryside. With a horse and a pass, Herring set out and arrived at the home of Mr. Prince Howland, a known loyalist living in Fishkill, New York. Howland owned a collection of fine garments, which Herring spotted during his visit. Following Washington’s protocol, Herring asked to purchase the clothes, but Howland refused to sell them; he was not one to aid the patriot cause.
Herring was not willing to take no for an answer. He gathered other members of Washington’s guard and organized a heist. They knew the policy under Washington: the penalty for such thievery was hanging. Therefore, they donned disguises. While careful to blacken their faces with burnt cork, these not-so-stealthy burglars foolishly wore the round bearskin hats that clearly identified them as Washington’s guard. The bumbling burglars broke into Howland’s house and stole the fine clothing along with some silver spoons and cash. Then they proceed to loot his neighbor’s before returning to Washington’s camp. Howland promptly reported the theft, complete with a damning description of the burglars’ telltale hats.
Washington was livid. “Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by troops of late,” he was “determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most hardened offenders.” He had Herring and his cat burglars tried by courts-martial. When they were found guilty and Herring condemned to death, Washington upheld this harsh punishment. He wrote in his general orders for the day, “men who are called out by their country to defend the rights and property of their fellow citizens, who are abandoned enough to violate those rights and plunder the property deserve and shall receive no mercy.” The commander had made a strong statement in defense of a Tories property.
One of the more interesting observations made by Beiring is the fact that even Tories were considered to be Americans by Washington. Though he was not opposed to civilian abuse of their countrymen, even abuse by civilian authorities, he was determined that the army under his command would not abuse its power, even against its avowed enemies. Washington was cognizant of precedent and believed that in a republican form of government the army served at the pleasure of the civilian authority and was subject to its dictates. In spite of chafing at the constraints placed upon him by the Continental Congress at the onset of the war, Washington refused to exceed the bounds of his authority. Ultimately Congress realized that they could not hope to be victorious by micromanaging the army and delegated near dictatorial powers to Washington.
Washington used these powers by necessity, but always sought to limit their sphere to that of military action in spite of grave costs to the war effort.
In another example of Washington’s restraint he allowed civilian authorities to prosecute civilians accused of spying and abetting the enemy – even though they were caught red-handed by his troops. He was careful to distinguish between military issues and civilian crime. Beirne does an especially good job with his poignant depiction of the execution of Major Andre – a British soldier caught in the process of abetting Benedict Arnold’s heinous treachery.
The military Academy at West Point exists today as a testament to America’s life-and-death struggle. What is now perhaps one of the safest places on earth was once a place where the future of the nation teetered in the balance. As far as Washington was concerned, the military post at West Point was the most important one in United States during the Revolutionary War. In a tale of treachery and tragedy, the crucial fort was nearly sold out to the enemy, the traitor escaped, but a military commission dispensed swift justice on a co-conspirator. Washington’s response to the crisis was ad hoc. It was merciless. It was condemned by many. Nevertheless, the patriotic security and serenity that now pervades campus of the United States military Academy stem directly from the actions of the gallant man pictured on a horse in front of the dining hall.
Washington could be harsh, but he could also be humble. Beirne explains that background surrounding the Newburgh Conspiracy, in which a group of disgruntled officers, angry at the repeated broken promises of a weak and inept Continental Congress, was making plans for a military coup. The story of Washington’s intervention at this crucial moment is well-known*, but Beirne points out something interesting in the telling. At that time in American history, wearing glasses was to admit weakness. Washington was a strong and extremely proud man. Hence, it was significant that he was willing to humble himself unaffectedly before his men, when he resorted to their use in order to read the latest missive from Congress. He was able to defuse a delicate situation by his actions. This was but one of many critical instances in which Washington turned the course of events and safeguarded the future of America.
These are but a few examples of Washington’s imprint on the future. The Blood of Tyrants is well-written, not pedantic or overdone. Both those familiar with the great man’s deeds and those less so, will find interesting things to consider in this valuable book.
*Washington then gave a short but impassioned speech, now known as the Newburgh Address, counseling patience. His message was that they should oppose anyone “who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood.” He then produced a letter from a member of Congress to read to the officers. He gazed upon it and fumbled with it without speaking. He then took a pair of reading glasses from his pocket, which were new and few of the men had seen him wear them. He then said: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” This caused the men to realize that Washington had sacrificed a great deal for the Revolution, just as much as any of them. These, of course, were his fellow officers, most having worked closely with him for several years. Many of those present were moved to tears, and with this act, the conspiracy collapsed as he read the letter. He then left the room, and General Knox and others offered resolutions reaffirming their loyalty. Knox and Colonel Brooks were then appointed to a committee to draft a suitable resolution. Approved by virtually the entire assembly, the resolution expressed “unshaken confidence” in Congress, and “disdain” and “abhorrence” for the irregular proposals published earlier in the week. – Wikipedia