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/.
You clearly point out some representative examples of problems in the the book. I disagree though that this book should be recommended to someone with little knowledge of the period. I think it takes some background to be able to judge the interpretations the author makes. Readers with knowledge will recognize the book’s approach and interpretations, but those without it likely will not. All of that said, the author of this book is not a historian and it seems to me to be aimed at a right-leaning crowd. Considering it in that light, one could argue that it is successful, but, again, the presentism of the book will be troubling to many academic historians.
Thank you for your thoughts. I’m not disagreeing with you, I think your assessments are pretty spot-on, but I do think the book has some modicum of value. While I think there are serious problems with the volume, I can’t say the book is worthless. The lay reader will certainly find use in the discussion of the Jumonville Affair and with Congressional resolves during the war. While I think Beirne’s treatment is weak, it isn’t unbalanced. I found several discussions quite useful (again, far from ideal) and it does introduce the reader into the gray-area of the war (as I said, without being controversial). Beirne is playing fast and loose with the facts in some instances, and that is precisely why I raised contention with it in the first place. Hopefully readers will look up reviews of the book and find this one so that they have some caveat emptor.
Hi Tom, I do not think Michael was saying I played fast and loose with the facts. But he can of course correct me if I am wrong. As full disclosure, Michael provided excellent research assistance on this book – you may have noticed that he is thanked on page 321 – and he worked hard to help make sure I did not stray from those facts.
Michael knows all too well (many 3am emails were exchanged as we raced to make our edits! Weren’t those fun times, Michael?) – the hundred pages of footnotes I used to support the factual narrative. Is the book written for historians? No. But does that mean it is partially fictional and/or riddled with errors? An emphatic no.
Instead, I believe Michael is referring to the more general issue caused by the book’s connections between past and present. This is something I openly acknowledge in the Introduction when I say “The unabashed presentism of this book is sure to make many academic historians cringe. However, when it comes to historical constitutional interpretation, this is an unavoidable nature of the inquiry.” This is the very nature of legal academia. It is unavoidable and something I and my colleagues over at the law school grapple with while our colleagues across the street at the Yale History Dept respectfully disagree. But presentism is often an inescapable evil from the legal perspective and something I am upfront about from the outset of the book. It is this legal perspective that provides the fresh look at Washington after the many excellent books written by historians – it is the whole point!
Michael has praised the book in the past but my understanding is that he is eager to caution readers that there are inherent difficulties in any legal approach to history. For that very reason, I am careful to do that so all readers, even beginners, can learn from the book with their eyes wide open. As I think you will agree, the book is respectful of the reader and largely leaves it to each to make his or her own judgment rather than force feed any agenda.
Michael is correct that conservatives have traditionally placed greater emphasis on originalism; however, it is dated thinking to not recognize that the vast majority of jurists and legal academics now believe that historical understanding should at least be a starting point for interpreting the Constitution. Please check out opinions over the past years written by liberal Justices – they too seek out parallels to historical events.
Far from preaching any party line, “I argue that historical understanding should at least be a starting point for interpreting the Constitution. People will have varying subjective convictions as to the merits of originalism in constitutional analysis, but even those who are intellectually opposed to it must agree that this mode of interpretation is objectively important if only because major players believe it is important.” (pulled from the Epilogue)
True, the book has been well received in conservative circles but it also has captured the interest of many others (I can send along examples from all sides to anyone interested). For anyone concerned that they will be force fed a politically skewed agenda, please check out these as well as the blurbs for praise from top names across the political spectrum.
Perhaps my first comment came off as unnecessarily harsh (and not a little bit hyperbolic). My apologies to the author for that.
As to your comment, Tom, I am not saying the book is without value. I do think, however, that its value depends heavily on the specific audience reading it. That is to say, those who appreciate a decidedly legal (and/or originalist) reading of the founding will find much to their liking here. I also think, as I said above, that those leaning to the right of the political spectrum will likely also find much here to their liking. Those facts are clear when one sees the many positive reviews the work has received on Amazon. At the same time, I imagine most academic historians will react to the book in a manner similar to yours, Tom. But this book was not written for an academic audience. I stick by my statement that this is not the book I would recommend to someone who had no knowledge of the period or Washington. However, if a reader comes to this book with some knowledge and an understanding that interpretations are being offered here, then it can indeed be a worthy read. I first read it a few years ago and while, as an academic, I had a number of disagreements with some of the author’s interpretations, there were others that were, as you said, “quite useful” and thought-provoking.
I don’t think we disagree. I would, of course, recommend other books before this one. However, if the right situation arose, I would give this volume to someone with the caveats you’ve laid out above.
I wish we would get past the commonly held belief that George Washington “started” the French and Indian War. It is repeated in book after book, as if the French and British were good friends before 1754 and that dastardly young Washington ruined everything. The French and Indian (and/or) Seven Years War was just a continuation of the many skirmishes by land and sea that France and Britain fought before those minor incidents in the Pennsylvania forest. For example, the Battle of Fortenoy (1745) had 50,000 troops on each side, so Washington’s action was, at best, just an excuse for yet another flare up.
(Of course, I meant the Battle of Fontenoy)
Correct. The Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle (1748) was at the time, and continues to be now, widely viewed as nothing more than a pause in a continuing, simmering contest that only ended with the Treaty of Paris (1763) and the French removal from North America. Aix-la-Chapelle only happened because the superpowers on the continent had beaten themselves to a pulp and needed a pause to recoup, awaiting something like Washington’s encounter with Jumonville to set it all off once again.
A side issue with the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle: I cannot help but think that it caused some high level of resentment among rebelling leaders in 1775 and may have been a contributing factor in bringing about the revolution.
Recall that Louisbourg, the largest and strongest fortress in North America, was taken from the French solely by New England troops during King George’s War in 1745. Losses sustained in the taking were modest, but disease killed hundreds the following winter. Then, with the Treaty in 1748, Britain went and returned it to the French without any regard whatsoever for the colonists’ wishes (it was a strategic move to deal with other possessions elsewhere in the world).
Witnessing all of this this would have been James Otis, 23 years old, and Sam Adams, 26 at the time and I’m sure they would not have forgotten it as 1774-75 rolled around. I have tried to find expressions shock and amazement by New Englanders at the betrayal, but not had much luck. There may be something out there, but have not run across it. Even if anyone had, I can only think that charges of treason would have been quickly brought against anyone questioning what it was the crown was doing. Just a thought on the complicated, complex causation issue.
Good thoughts, Michael. Yes, that is true. I actually argued that in a research paper–not to mention the fact that the French had actually instigated the war a month earlier by capturing the unnamed British fort in April. A good overview of this is found in Doug MacGregor’s article, ‘The Shot Not Heard Around the World: Trent’s Fort and the Opening of the War for Empire’, in Pennsylvania History Vol. 74, No. 3 (Summer 2007), 354-373.
Given the following statement in the review, “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.” Can you suggest some specific books that would hold such merit?
I ask because although I will likely buy this book I am interested in digging deeper and understanding more about the period. I would like something to compare to this particular book.
For anyone interested in digging deeper and understanding more about the period, I recommend browsing all of the Journal of the American Revolution book reviews.
Additionally, JAR Editor Hugh T. Harrington put together a solid list of Revolutionary War 101 books, which you can browse here. Then, Hugh also put together a more comprehensive “essential library” list that provides a healthy diet of 200 and 300 level volumes on the Revolution.
Understandably, book recommendations will vary greatly from person to person. Knowing that, we asked several JAR contributors in late 2013 to identify the books that they consider essential to any Rev War buff’s library. This is what they said.
I second Todd’s response! This site has such a wealth of amazing information on it that searching the archives will undoubtedly yield many gems that work well as a springboard into other resources.
Thanks Todd. I am new to the site and appreciate the road map to great resources.
Tom – a good and fair review. Thank you.
I first heard of Logan Beirne’s book when he was interviewed at his alma mater and the interview was shown on C-SPAN3 one Saturday a year or two ago. I read the book after that and found much the same response that you did.
There WAS one particular part that bothered me and I was wondering if you interpreted the same: when Washington was at his Cambridge headquarters, a suspected female spy was apprehended and brought in to Washington. To me, Logan heavily implied that some sort of torture (forced interrogation) was used on the woman over night because by next morning she had confessed. It was implied (again, to me) that perhaps Washington gave his approval by not saying anything and just letting things happen.
Knowing the honor code of the time, it’s still hard for me to believe Washington (even in a silent way) would condone any Zero Dark 30 water-boarding tactics against the fair sex. Did you also have that impression in the book?
I am now in the midst of an article for JAR that concerns Washington’s treatment of prisoners and agree that, on principle, he does not appear to condone torture.
However, there is this letter in American Archives (note that they have just changed their search engine), which I cited in a prior article, that seems to indicate, if not torture, then some degree of coercion as evidenced by the writer’s suggestion that Washington put a suspected woman in “the black hole.” I have not read Beirne’s book and wonder if this is the woman he was referring to::
COLONEL TUPPER TO GENERAL WASHINGTON.
Sloop Hester, off Amboy, May 16, 1776.
SIR: Ever since the evening date of my last report I have been employed in detecting some persons who have lately been on board the men-of-war, in a small sloop which I have taken into custody, and shall wait your Excellency’ s orders for a further disposition of her. I have also taken, and sent by Lieutenant Humphreys, who brings this, one Mrs˙ Darbage, who went on board. She has absolutely refused to give any account, or answer any questions, both to the Committee of the town as well as to myself, and says she will do the same to your Excellency; but it is my opinion a little smell of the black-hole will set her tongue at liberty. It is the opinion of our friends in this town that she is able to bring out a number of rascals and villains in sundry towns nigh here.
In the context of the time period, it’s a stretch to call confinement in the black hole “torture.” A black hole was a solitary confinement cell; from the limited information in Colonel Tupper’s letter we cannot guess the details of it – we must not assume anything about its size, ventilation, etc. without direct information. What we do know is that confinement in the black hole was a very common punishment for minor military offenses, far less severe than corporal punishment such as lashing or running the gauntlet. Compared to other punishments, confinement in the black hole was relatively mild; as a coercion technique, it certainly may seem harsh by today’s standards but was only slightly worse than simply being put in jail by 1775 standards.
A fine point indeed! Thanks for sharing. I was also thinking that as I was reading the letter Gary produced. As someone who has researched what it was like being confined in close jail, being put in a hole is certainly the better of the two!
Thanks for your thoughts (and Gary too!). Yes, I think this is another example of where nuance is required and where Beirne does not give it the attention in the body of the text that it deserves. My concern mirrors yours, and where I feel that attempts to modernize the narrative as Beirne does take away from the things like honor codes and methods of coercion. I bow to Gary’s knowledge (as well as others) in this regard, because he has clearly done more research in this area.
Tom – I also certainly go along with the expert opinions of Gary and Don.
Just to clarify which female spy Beirne was referring to:
James Warren had written to John Adams about the all-night interrogation of the “suttle, shrewd Jade” that was Mary Wenwood. “She was then Taken into Custody, and Brought to the Generals Quarters that Night. It was not till the next day that any thing could be got from her.”
Mary Wenwood (apparently) was the one who finally talked and brought down the illustrious Dr. Church as a double spy.
Thanks for the clarification. Yes, I recall this part of the book well. I chose not to address it due to time limitations and space, but I’m glad you brought this up. It certainly has produced some great context and dialog.
Yes, Mary Wenwood was the mistress of Dr. Church and while acting as his messenger attempting to pass a message to the British, clearly demonstrated Church had chosen her for attributes other than her intellect. Mary, a Marblehead native, was a rather disreputable women according to local clergy there. Washington questioned her only to learn who had given her the encoded letter. She was not a “spy” in any real sense. Dr. Church, however, easily deserves the title of America’s first spy and traitor.
Thanks for the additional details. I’m always reluctant to use the word ‘traitor’–especially about such an early period. It’s such a subjective term and out of sorts for the time.
You are wise to be cautious. When you hear “traitor” think “treason” and then consider the radical change that that law went through from the time of its creation during the reign of Edward III in 1351 up to the Revolution.
Originally, treason was intended to protect only the personages of the king and his family, but after the colonies were created and settlers needed a way to deal with frontier issues they rationalized law enforcement in many different ways as an extension of protecting the king’s interests. It was a corruption of the original intent of the law and became even more so in the years leading up to the Revolution when any questioning of the king was considered treason.
Because of the abuses that authorities brought about in enforcing this perverted concept of treason, which was highly resented by the colonists, it resulted in a very narrow interpretation when it came time to draft the U.S. Constitution (see, Art. III, sec. 3(1)).
Here is a great quote from Jefferson on treason as he reflects on past application of the concept and the need to interpret future instances when it applies narrowly:
“Treason, … when real, merits the highest punishment. But most codes extend their definitions of treason to acts not really against one’s country. They do not distinguish between acts against the government, and acts against the oppressions of the government; the latter are virtues; yet they have furnished more victims to the executioner than the former; real treasons are rare; oppressions frequent. The unsuccessful strugglers against tyranny, have been the chief martyrs of treason laws in all countries.”
Tom, I take your point on the use of the term traitor as until July 1776 all the colonials were British in a sense. However I do not use the label lightly. Church’s motivation for selling out his fellow patriots was money and I have found no evidence of his personal commitment to the Crown. Many others were, at that time, reporting the activities of the Sons of Liberty and other political leaders to General Gage and his officers. But, they were mostly openly Tory and did not attempt to seek leadership roles within the patriot movement.
Without indorsing or criticizing “Blood of Tyrants” I believe you should re-think your argument regarding whether Washington “…really felt that ‘the military should remain subservient to the civilians they protect’ ”. The actions you cite in 1776, confiscating weapons and ammunition from Tories (in combat zones) and “disaffected” in Bucks County (mindful that these were militia refusing to turn out, and the arms being confiscated in this example were a public asset necessary for militia service) were actions protective of those civilians to whom the American military was subservient. Washington’s general orders requiring better care and admonishing abuse of civilian homes where soldiers were billeted in and around New York in 1776 was also an effort to protect private property; whether those were Tory or Whig homes; whether the use was compensated or not. These actions do not seem “behaviorally inconsistent” with a man apprehensive about taking civilian property under the various state and congressional legislations of 1778; which authorized condemnation and confiscation of any and/or all property held by Tories regardless of whether the individual was in a combat zone, posed an immediate threat, or had been given the benefit of due process. There’s a vast difference in circumstance and time between the immediate need and threat posed by those in your 1776 examples and the unspecific needs and lack of threat posed by the vast majority of individuals dispossessed by various acts of 1778. We should also consider the possibility that Washington’s attitude may have matured over time. By 1778 leaders on both sides, Washington included, were realizing the “hearts and minds” aspect of the conflict, which would have argued against actions likely to generate disillusion among the populace; and Washington was learning more about leadership than simply how to march troops. The examples cited in your review on this topic form a body of evidence indicating Washington was able to distinguish friend from foe and to discern differences between immediate necessity and legalized robbery.
Sorry, Jim, but I do not intend to use your oversimplifications.
Sorry for my quick response. I realize that it could have come across as rude; that wasn’t my intention. We got hit with some rough weather today and I had just convinced myself to go outside and shovel (which actually means I’m shoveling for my neighbors as well, as they are elderly–one is a former Marine and a veteran) just as I was replying to your post.
I have to say though, after rereading your comment, I don’t see any disagreement with what I wrote in my review. I appreciate your attention to the issue of disarmament, so if you want to focus on that subject, I highly recommend you review my article on the subject which can be found in the footnotes of my review. Or you can just follow this link: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/08/disarming-the-disaffected/
Also, I think one has to take into account that there is another side to the coin here–it isn’t just about Washington. It is precisely about the civilians–those he viewed as disaffected and those he viewed as well-affected to the cause. Both labels are broad and loosely applied (highly subjective), and there were agendas to the use of these labels which cannot be ignored. But that is all I’ll say about the subject in this thread.
Please consider reading that article and, if you feel the urge to do so, leave a comment in that thread where a conversation about the subject would be more appropriate (in my humble opinion).
Apparently JAR software informs you when I’m prepping a snarky retort; but I’m shoveling the same s#%w and understand. I did read “Disarming the Disaffected” last August and enjoyed it. My suggestion regarding the present book review goes to whether Washington was or was not reluctant to “plunder” civilians, so will keep it here.
In covering Bierne’s consideration of mistreatment of Tories in certain areas of the US in 1778: “from looting and seizing property, to confining them and taxing them by absurd amounts”, you say that “he misses a few important opportunities to bring up Washington’s role in the plunder.” In regards to Congressional resolution for Washington to confiscate what he needed from civilians you wrote “…Washington was more than willing to play the role of the robber when it suited his purposes…”. Had you used “necessity” or “need” instead of “purpose”, I might not have reached for the keyboard; I’ll try to explain.
The quotes you used to support that interpretation are some of the same quotes used in your “Disarming” piece. Those quotes in the timeframe of 1776 when they occurred, and in the face of a “disaffected” population with real potential of either supporting the British invasion of New York (Long Island quote) or rising against Pennsylvania, Congress, or the Continental Army (Bucks County quote), show Washington taking action to quell specific imminent detrimental activity by a specific subset of the population. Hardly acts that indicate that Washington later supported confiscation of civilian property, particularly in the Bucks County case since the Pennsylvania resolution of 9 April 1776 provided that those disarming the disaffected “shall pay to the owners the Value of such Arms as are fit for Use, or that can be conveniently made so” (quoted from “Disarming the Disaffected”).
My sole point is that those quotations refer to a 1776 “necessity” but do not transfer well to asserting a 1778 “purpose” to Washington’s actions or a conclusion whether Washington was “reluctant” to confiscate civilian property as authorized under the congressional resolution of 1778. It’s a different time, Washington was two years more experienced and the Congressional authorization was much broader in scope and applicability than the specific instances the quotes support. We agree that Bierne’s discussion of Washington’s views on Tory property confiscation resolution is oversimplified and there’s much more to it, and based on your previous writing we probably agree that discussion should be equally informed by activities on the other side of the coin – where the Crown, and loyalist partisans, were engaged in the same behavior (e.g., to keep it close to your home, the Loyalist Bucks County “Bird in Hand” raid of Feb 1778). My goal was to encourage you not to come to a conclusion based solely on the evidence you presented. There’s so much more, it’s a nuanced discussion, and a larger issue as background to Washington’s later position regarding the Bill of Rights. I obviously failed to make that clear, therein the fault lies here –
I’m both relieved and saddened to hear that you understand my plight! And we are getting more of this snow (AKA ‘the Devil’s dandruff’) this week and into the weekend.
Thank you for clarifying your position. As you said, our general point of disagreement is over my use of the word ‘purposes’ instead of ‘needs’ which might be incidental or superficial at heart. It is possible that what I wrote could be taken as a symptom of his motivations—you’re right to raise a flag about that. However, if motivations were the point of contention, then necessity is motivation enough, wouldn’t you agree? His purposes then would be driven out of necessity. And in this instance, relating to 1776, it was absolutely out of necessity.
I will say, however, that Washington’s view on disarming civilians was not limited to only war-time necessity. He viewed any possible threat to the government—especially during his presidency (post-Constitution)—as justification for disarmament. During the Whiskey Rebellion, he gave explicit orders to General Lee (through Alexander Hamilton; http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-06-02-0003-0003-0014) to disarm the riotous mobs in western Pennsylvania:
“Of those persons in arms, if any, whom you may make prisoners; leaders, including all persons in command, are to be delivered up to the civil magistrate: the rest to be disarmed, admonished and sent home (except such as may have been particularly violent and also influential) causing their own recognizances for their good behaviour to be taken, in the cases in which it may be deemed expedient.” (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-17-02-0317)
Note that he isn’t indicating just the leaders—but “the rest” (e.g., anyone in arms). These orders were actually being carried out, by his subordinates, as early as September (month before his instructions reached Hamilton). So when you say that these acts don’t “indicate that Washington later supported confiscation of civilian property,” I’d say the evidence doesn’t support that. In fact it seems that Washington did indeed support the confiscation of civilian property when it was necessary for him to do so. We must both acknowledge that necessity here is a subjective term.
Back to the wartime confiscation; while there was the resolution to pay the owners for their arms, most people never received the money (the state could hardly pay its own soldiers)—a point I raise in the very article you cited:
“ Pennsylvania Archives, Ser. 8, Vol. 8, 7506-7507. I should note here that despite the resolution that the guns be appraised, most were not. This part of the resolve was carelessly followed (or deliberately ignored); often only those who volunteered their arms for use by the patriots—those Whigs of the same political orientation—were given adequate sums for their guns. Those who had their guns forcefully taken were not only less likely to receive payment, but whatever money was given was immediately taken the next tax cycle (as Tories and disaffected were notoriously overtaxed as a penalty for their disaffection).”
I also tried to be very clear in my article about the definition of ‘disaffected’; the term was very broad for a reason—these were not just Tories, but those who were simply apathetic in most instances (especially in frontier communities). I often tell people that it is important not to generalize and label the average civilian—and these were civilians—by categorizing them as good or evil, or as ‘the enemy’. It’s not so black and white. I see this a lot on comments and even some authors oversimplify the population by marginalizing them into these categories. I’m not saying you’re doing that specifically, but it is a slippery slope.
We don’t know the social setting of the people of Bucks, specifically those in the militia. To examine the individual situations would take hundreds of hours. All that can be said affirmatively is that Washington sought to disarm civilians. Beyond that we’re speculating about their loyalties and politics.
But we do agree in a large extent that the conversation is more nuanced than what is given in Bierne’s discussion on the subject; that is why it is so problematic and why I raised the point in the article. We may disagree on a few things, but that is the best part of this site—disagreements get heard and we can all learn from one another. We clearly agree more than we disagree. Let’s leave it at that for now.
Thanks again for offering your perspectives.
Well put – we live in Virginia because my Vermont spouse says “you don’t have to shovel rain”. At least not that often .
As a was reading your post with my head nodding agreement, I realized we are speaking past each other. Your focus, as is your forte, is upon the guns. However, my focus (with a legal background) was upon the legislative acts to which I thought Bierne was referring: those resolutions of congress, state, and local governments which by 1778 authorized the confiscation of the general, personal and real property of anyone deemed to have acted contrary to liberty’s cause or who refused to swear an oath of allegiance to the new government. While some of these confiscations were used to generate revenue for the payment, or repayment, of war debt; other times they were opportunistic re-distributions of wealth. Perhaps some of them could suit our precept of necessity, but only up to a point. Airport-stranded without specific source examples at my fingertips, my impression is that Washington wasn’t the only leader concerned with the lack of due process and the ability to condemn property, homes and land based on scanty accusation and the impact that confiscations might have on the uncommitted portion of the population. I wish I were able to look up the vote of the congressional resolve to see how the numbers fell and who went which way. And of course I’d agree that Washington did employ confiscation under the exigency of necessity — though I do recall that even necessity and the opportunity to “rub it in” could not persuade Washington to occupy Loyalist Colonel (and spy) Beverly Robinson’s confiscated manor as his West Point headquarters; he turned to the offered home of a patriot instead (Robinson’s home was instead occupied by Benedict Arnold as his HQ, and in irony Robinson was Andre’s cohort who remained aboard HMS Vulture during the fated rendezvous).
Anyway, I took author Bierne’s point as directed towards Washington’s attitude regarding personal and real property confiscation without due process. If Mr. Bierne was solely speaking to the guns of the disaffected, I’m off course.
And I’m not opposed to snow on the ski slope, just in my driveway 🙂
Ha! Snow on ski slopes is indeed quite fine (though, I haven’t gone skiing in years–longer than I’d like to admit).
Good thoughts on this. Washington did strip all the lead from the homes on Long Island to melt down for bullets. And he did permit the quartering of soldiers in homes while at Cambridge and Long Island (with the caveat that he asked soldiers to take care to leave personal property alone–er, save things made of lead or with lead I guess).
Thanks again for the fun conversation.
Thank you for your review. I am happy hearing that a history student like yourself enjoyed the writing and hope it was a nice respite from your textbooks.
I read your opinion as generally favorable along with the requisite critiques that accompany any such review. A few items call for an informal response.
I understand from Don that you had a tight deadline and I am not sure if that caused a few inaccuracies to creep into your review so I wanted to point out a few critiques that were objectively incorrect. I certainly intend this all in good-natured debate and would enjoy taking you to coffee to discuss further next time you are in the New York/Connecticut area:
1. Regarding the title, the book focuses on the Revolutionary War and how it led to the creation of the presidency. The Americans sought to create a president strong enough to protect us from tyrants abroad but not too strong as to become a tyrant at home. This book delves into Washington’s actions as he defined the powers of the “commander in chief” during the war to provide a better understanding of what the Constitution was intended to mean in 1787. Thus, the subtitle “George Washington & the Forging of the Presidency” refers to how Washington forged the concept of the Presidency. This is all laid out in the introduction.
2. I am very clear that the book is not meant as a traditional history but is from a legal perspective. That is explicit in the introduction, conclusion, and introductory parts to each section. It is implicit in the topic-based layout of the whole book. I think much of your criticism stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of this perspective.
Approaching the history from a legal perspective, I intentionally focus on certain topics rather than attempting to provide a (voluminous) history of the war. To your credit, you acknowledge this to some degree when you say that the book was not written for a history student like yourself, but a general audience.
It is certainly fair to reiterate the well-known historian stance on presentism; however, it is important to be aware that presentism is often a necessary evil in legal analysis (Jack Rakove, who blurbed this book, and I had a conversation about how legal academics inevitable face such challenges. I would be delighted to chat with you about that). But it would be more productive to have a respectful debate on the subject – something Yale Law and Yale History have, for example – rather than use it to paint the book as not fit for the learned reader. Instead of seemingly looking down on an acclaimed book, as your last line suggests, it may have been better to be more open to the fact that many with a “nuanced background of the war” have learned from and appreciated the different perspective.
3. The review makes much of one part of my section on takings. But in that discussion, you largely missed the point that Washington was conflicted in the sense that he was eager to set the precedent of the American commander as one who followed Congressional directives and protected American property rights (for reasons of both PR and principle) but the realities of war left him desperate for supplies. In a sense, you build that out-of-context sentence into a straw man.
You posit “quite incorrectly” that Washington was “was more than willing to play the role of the robber.” Washington most definitely did not want to be a “robber” but instead sought to craft the military into a force that respected civilian control and property rights. With authorization, he certainly willing to seize but was eager not to play the role of plunderer. That is the “reluctance” to which the straw man sentence refers. You illustrate my point in your quote, “If you think fit to empower me, I will undertake to have it done as speedily and effectually as possible” – I am focusing on the importance of that “if”.
4. You fault me for missing details such as “regulating the disarming of citizens,” which I do actually address on pages 243-44, 251. Perhaps you would like me to have focused on that issue or others more but that does not mean I was necessarily “leaving out … critical details.” Again, this book is not designed to be a comprehensive tome of the Revolution but instead focuses on particular issues. And in this case, I had plenty of other instances to highlight without distracting from my takings focus by bringing arms issues that could bring in Second Amendment issues. Remember, you called the book a “staggering 319 pages” while simultaneously faulting it for not cramming so much more in.
5. Next, you claim I am playing fast and loose with the facts regarding the shot heard round the world; however, if you read Chapter 7, footnote 19 you will see that I say much of what you do about the conflicting accounts and how I focused on two particular primary source documents for narrative purposes. Further, far from fictional, the use of the flintrock rifle is from Mount Vernon’s historians. Such commentary is fine for a classroom discussion but it is damaging to claim a book is partially fictional just because a tight deadline forced you to skip parts.
While I think it is important to set the record straight on those few points, I am happy that a fellow SAR compatriot enjoyed the book overall. Further, I am overjoyed that the book has gotten so many interested in Washington.
At the risk of patting myself on the back, I think it is important to point out that your criticisms are not broadly shared. Featured by ABC News, Fox News, USA Today, Washington Post, NY Post, NY Daily News, Reuters, and many others, the book has received more attention than I had imagined. The book not only won the Colby Award from the Pritzker Military Library and Norwich University but Mount Vernon has also praised it and showcased it in their library. It has received accolades from legal academics from across the political spectrum, including multiple Pulitzer Prize winning historians.
I am proud that it has gotten a broad general audience discussing the American Revolution. I applaud you for doing the same. Please let me know when you are in town so I can shake your hand.
Thank you, Logan
Thank you for your comments and self applause. I fail to see how your collection of book blurbs and private conversations make up for your book’s issues, and I stand by what I wrote. More so, I’m surprised that you’d suggest my balanced review somehow holds less merit because you’ve been “featured by” a variety of news media.
I am well aware of your introductory disclaimers and citations, but I believe it’s a slippery slope when the narrative assumptions are revealed primarily in endnotes with carefully worded stipulations. Sadly, even the notes were disappointing at times. Too often I was left craving primary source evidence only to find nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century sources. And in some cases no source at all was provided for readers to evaluate your claims (e.g., Ch 7. n.20, “The Americans were armed with muskets, blunderbusses, or any gun they could find. Exactly who fired the first shot and with what kind of firearm has been lost to history, but many suspect that it was an American with a Scottish flintlock pistol.”).
You may have originally intended your book for a niche legal audience and hoped that legal perspective would forgive your historical interpretations, but the book is also clearly marketed as a traditional history, which is evident from the copyright page, the publicity, and the manuscript review or research assistance by a traditional historian.
So, as traditional history goes, I believe the book depends too heavily on secondary sources and relegates critical information to the notes in favor of sometimes questionable narrative. Again, I stand by my review and continue to think that academic historians and serious students of history will take issue with a number of interpretations you’ve made.
Reaching Chapter 4, I paused and put the book down. This one will be getting traded up for something else. This read like someones homework assignment that they paid a stranger in a campus tavern to write up for them. If you love history, that passion is transferred to the reader by how you tell the story – I didn’t feel any love in what I had read.