Book Review: Blood of Tyrants: George Washington and the Forging of the Presidency by Logan Beirne (Encounter Books, 2013)
On a May morning in 1754, a young George Washington commanding a handful of Virginia militia and some barely-clothed native allies fell upon some French troops in the Pennsylvania wilderness. An inexperienced Washington, keen on bending the law to suit his ends, had been convinced by his native allies that the French were intent on attacking should he and his militia be spotted. Washington agreed to sneak up on the soldiers and, following his command to attack, a skirmish ensued. By the end of it, the French troops were butchered and scalped, and this upstart Virginian had begun the Seven Years War as a result of his Jumonville Affair. So also begins Logan Beirne’s expose on the character of Washington (pages 2 thru 6).
The title of the book is a little misleading. A good chunk of the book focuses on Washington’s exploits from his youth well into, and throughout, the War for American Independence. Perhaps a better title would have been “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about George Washington but Were Too Afraid to Ask”. At a staggering 319 pages (not including indices and acknowledgements), the book—written in a playful, narrative form—has a lot of good qualities, but suffers a few pitfalls from its own rhetoric.
It’s very easy to read. Beirne makes a lot of otherwise dry subject matter enjoyable, which is a good thing since his targeted audience seems to be laypeople and not academics. For example, he spends a lot of time describing scenic details and physical attributes. The May morning in the Battle of Jumonville Glen is described as “wet”, but it was the “natural beauty of the verdant fauna amidst the jagged rock” that sells it (page 2). We learn that, aside from General William Howe’s family connections and his upper-class status from which he apparently derived his command, he had black eyes “that sparkled almost as much as his stellar reputation” (page 71).
For all its good story telling, there are problems that plague it. In Chapter 30, whose title is ‘License to Plunder’, the discussion starts off well. Beirne goes into the various mistreatments of Tories and Loyalists in certain parts of the United States in 1778, from looting and seizing property, to confining them and taxing them by absurd amounts. He does a good job of covering the basics. But he misses a few important opportunities to bring up Washington’s role in the plunder. Instead, Beirne goes out of his way to portray Washington as a sort of conflicted Pontius Pilate character who washes his hands of the blood. For verification of this, one need look no further than Beirne’s section about Congress’ resolution allowing Washington to take what he needed from the civilian population. Beirne argues, quite incorrectly, that “Washington was reluctant to take advantage of this authorization” (page 268).
In fact, Washington was more than willing to play the role of the robber when it suited his purposes, particularly when he could not get Congress to move swiftly enough to meet his own strategic goals. In January of 1776, he ordered that all persons on Long Island “whose conduct, and declarations have render’d them justly suspected of Designs unfriendly to the Views of Congress” be disarmed, “& if necessary otherwise securing them.” And in December, almost a year later, he wrote to Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety that “The Spirit of Disaffection that appears in this County [Bucks], deserves your serious Attention.” The militia was refusing to turn out, and Washington argued; “I beg leave to submit to your Consideration whether such people are to be intrusted with Arms in their Hands?” He wasn’t above confiscating them. He made it clear that “even supposing they claimed the Right of remaining Neuter, in my Opinion we ought not to hesitate a Moment in taking their Arms, which will be so much wanted in furnishing the new Levies.” Contrary to Beirne’s claims about Washington’s apprehension about taking things that didn’t belong to him, he solidified his haste to the Committee, “If you think fit to empower me, I will undertake to have it done as speedily and effectually as possible.”
This isn’t nitpicking; this undermines the whole character of Washington that Beirne is trying to portray. By arguing that Washington didn’t want to take things, but did so anyway because of a congressional directive, paints a rather behaviorally inconsistent figure of our first Commander in Chief that I’m sure runs contrary to Beirne’s motivations. It also ignores Beirne’s earlier portrait of young Washington at Jumonville, unafraid of taking what he needs in order to be a successful military officer.
More so, by leaving out these critical details Beirne is also not addressing the grittier areas of Washington’s career. Where is Beirne’s discussion of the quartering of troops in private homes throughout New York on Washington’s order? Where is the conversation about Washington’s men taking lead from homes to make bullets? These have an impact on Beirne’s claim as to whether Washington really felt that “the military should remain subservient to the civilians they protect” (page 270).
And it isn’t just here that his narrative misses important details. Each section has something that is lacking. His discussion of the Lexington Green and the “shot heard round the world” is another example of a subject that deserves more careful analysis. He writes (page 56):
“Terrified of the enormous mass of red and metal rapidly nearing, some of the Americans decided to go home. But suddenly, just as the Americans began to disperse, the confused scene was pierced by the boom of a gun. While each side blamed the other, reports of that fateful moment indicated that an unknown man had been secretly watching the events unfold from afar. He peered down his Scottish flintlock pistol at the advancing redcoats and…unleashed a deafening thunder and spray of pungent, singeing gunpowder.”
Besides being a very ‘kids gloves’ approach to an otherwise touchy and serious subject, the answer to the question ‘Who shot first?’ isn’t as simple as saying ‘some guy from the sidelines did it.’ The primary sources don’t agree and each side had their own agenda about who fired from where and when. This anonymous figure sporting a Scottish flintlock pistol sounds great in a fictional story, but then the educated reader is left to wonder: what sort of book is Beirne presenting; a fiction or a history?
I don’t want to come across as completely negative. The book is not written for me. It’s written for the person with no knowledge of the difficulties, socially and politically, of the founding period into the Early Republic and Washington’s role in them. It serves its purpose as a soft approach to topics that the author found particularly juicy without having to be very controversial. And it has been successful, mostly, in its aims. The full-knowing reader will question the details of the finer points and wonder about the parts that seem wholly fanciful. But I enjoyed the read, despite its limitations, and would recommend it to anyone just starting to dig their way through the epidermis of the American Revolution. It doesn’t really hold much merit for anyone familiar with the nuanced background of the war and postwar United States in general or Washington specifically.
 Instructions to Major General Charles Lee, 8 January 1776; accessed online, 11 January 2015: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0033.
 From George Washington to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety, 15 December 1776; accessed online, 11 January 2015: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-07-02-0276. In fact, it is surprising to see very scant mentions of any of the acts regulating the disarming of citizens during the war in Beirne’s book, as it held such a pivotal place in Washington’s letters to Congress and his friends; especially since he makes a point of it to mention the British marching on Concord to do just that (page 55). See more about this subject in my article, ‘Disarming the Disaffected’: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/08/disarming-the-disaffected/.
 General Orders August 5 1776; accessed online, 11 January 2015: http://lincoln.lib.niu.edu/cgi-bin/amarch/getdoc.pl?/var/lib/philologic/databases/amarch/.20382.
 “Of Lead we have a sufficient quantity for the whole Campaign taken off the Houses here.” General Orders, 17 April 1776; accessed online, 11 January 2015: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-04-02-0058.
 See the really useful discussion and the following debate happening in the comments over at Derek W. Beck’s article here at Journal of the American Revolution, ‘Who Shot First? The Americans!’: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/04/who-shot-first-the-americans/.