A lot has been written about the greatest writers and orators of the Revolution, but effective communication also requires good listening. Who was the best listener during the Revolution and what demonstrates or supports your selection?
I’d give Henry Knox the prize for best listener. He seldom took the lead in discussions when he was artillery commander during the war or Secretary of War during Washington’s presidency. But his vote was almost always on the side of wisdom and strength. He proved it in 1775 when he brought the artillery from Fort Ticonderoga through snow and ice to give Washington the guns he needed to drive the British out of Boston.
It may be safe to say that during the Revolution, the overall best listener was George Washington. Not one to ramble on or dominate conversations by nervous talking, Washington spoke little but listened a lot. Some people claim that his teeth always hurt him, so he didn’t talk much. Others claim Washington was always aware that his educational level wasn’t as advanced as the people he was listening to.
It could be that Washington was just wise enough to listen to a variety of opinions before making a decision. To his credit, most of the time, Washington listened to the advice of his council of war, the convened general staff that he consulted. Whether this was from the Congressional mandate that he do so, or Washington’s own insecure feelings about military strategy, Washington usually listened and then decided. It almost always turned out for the better.
On December 2, 1777, Lydia Darragh (1729-1789) hid in a linen closet in her Philadelphia home on Second Street. In the next room, General William Howe was finalizing plans for an attack on Whitemarsh, where Darragh’s son, Charles, was with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment. In the morning, Mrs. Darragh walked towards Frankford until she could pass on her message. The attack was foiled and several suspects were questioned. Major Andre, sent to question Lydia Darragh, left saying, “One thing is certain the enemy had notice of our coming, were prepared for us, and we marched back like a parcel of fools. The walls must have ears.”
Elias Boudinot’s (1740-1821) posthumously published Journal, validates the story. “On Opening the needle book, I found information that Genl Howe was coming out the next morning with 5000 Men — 13 pieces of Cannon — Baggage Waggons, and 11 Boats on Waggon Wheels.”
James Madison, hands down. What he did not have in physical attributes, he more than made up for it in his personal qualities. There were, arguably, no others of the Founders that could claim such a wide base of knowledge or appreciation for the mechanics of government and then translate that into a grand practical design, such as Madison did with the Constitution. His ability to discern the nuances of political parties then in assent and reach accord with both sides was remarkable. He could only accomplish the many things he did precisely because he was a good listener.
Listeners may well leave a thinner paper trail than people who are eager about getting their point across, so the best listener might be invisible to history. For example, John Hodgson, a Scottish immigrant who taught shorthand in Boston, took down all the testimony at the soldiers’ trial after the Boston Massacre—the first time an American criminal trial was reported so thoroughly. But we know almost nothing about Hodgson himself and how he felt about his new home.
One well documented, active figure who appears to have been an excellent listener is James Madison. His Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 provide a thorough summary of the vital discussions on the floor of the Constitutional Convention, so much so that constitutional lawyers have consulted them as if they were a complete and impartial record of that event. (Mary Sarah Bilder’s new book, Madison’s Hand, warns us not to fall into that assumption.)
Hands down, Benjamin Franklin! Franklin was forced to do considerable listening both in Paris and Philadelphia. He was America’s most able politician in leading Congressional passage of the Declaration of Independence and our best diplomat by negotiating the Treaty of Paris. Franklin accomplished these agreements not through the power of his oratory, but by being a keen observer of character and by knowing how to influence people behind the scenes.
I’d have to answer that the best listeners were those who took dictation from Washington and other parties who played significant roles during the War. They created the original sources that best enable the writing of history on the subject. Men like Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, Robert Hanson Harrison and Tench Tilghman listened and wrote the many letters of direction, congratulations, warning, report, supply, morale and troop movement. Most of these “secretaries” also served as commissioned officers in Washington’s Headquarters and Lafayette went on to serve as a local commander until Washington arrived at Yorktown.
That honor almost has to go to George Washington. Any reading of his voluminous correspondence suggests how attentive he was in listening to others. For instance, he wanted to attack Boston and drive the British into the sea in late 1775 and into 1776. In councils of war, his officers told him that attempting to do so was a fool’s errand. Fortunately, he listened rather than acting rashly. But, even though he listened to the opinions of others, he was still his own person. Horatio Gates told Washington that the plan to attack Trenton was a preposterous idea, destined to fail. Knowing the Revolution was in serious trouble if he didn’t act, Washington didn’t listen to Gates. The result was the great turnabout victory at Trenton–and a little later at Princeton–that may have saved the Revolution from total collapse.
-James Kirby Martin
Again, I am most impressed by Washington, who, by listening to local civilians who knew the lay of the land, was able to stage a secret retreat from Trenton on January 2, 1777, and then surprise the British at Princeton. He convened his War Council often and took the advice he received to heart. Against his initial wishes, he agreed to retreat from Manhattan in 1776. Later, when stationed at West Point, he wanted to attack the city but allowed his War Council and his French allies to talk him out of it. No small part of the Continental Army’s survival was its commander’s ability to heed council. But as we credit Washington for his propensity to listen, we should also note that this was the type of leadership best suited to an army of freedom-loving patriots.
Washington was unsurpassed as a listener. First, he listened to those who criticized the mistakes he made as the commander of Virginia’s army during the French and Indian War, and he did not repeat those mistakes in the Revolutionary War. During the War of Independence, he listened to Congress and state officials. He also listened to good advice from his generals, as when Charles Lee urged him to escape Manhattan Island in 1776 and Nathanael Greene advised him not to listen to those who wanted him to attack British occupied Philadelphia in the winter of 1777-78. Finally, with some reluctance he listened to General Rochambeau, who preferred to campaign against Cornwallis in Virginia in 1781 rather than to attack the British army in New York, as Washington desired. Washington’s willingness to listen in the spring and summer of 1781 paved the way for the decisive allied victory at Yorktown.