Cabal! The Plot Against General Washington by Mark Edward Lender (Westholme, 2019)
While the winter at Valley Forge is ingrained in American lore, less attention is paid to the real, tangible concerns that existed among some in the army and in politics that the war was headed downhill under Washington’s command. During this time, Gen. Thomas Conway wrote a letter that started the so-called “Conway Cabal,” an event that has retained some recognition as an attempt to replace Washington, the actual threat of which is largely dismissed. However, as Mark Edward Lender asserts in Cabal! The Plot Against General Washington, the academic dismissal of the threats against Washington’s command is a relatively recent phenomenon. While early historians of the Revolution considered these threats palpable, Bernard Kollenberg’s 1941 reappraisal dismissed them as intangible—a basically unfounded conspiracy theory and nothing more. Historians since have more or less accepted that view of the Cabal’s insignificance—until now.
Lender provides the first in-depth examination of the Cabal in decades. In this thoroughly researched and highly readable volume, Lender contends that not only were threats to Washington’s command viable, but he further asserts that the real threat lay not in a conspiracy among Generals Horatio Gates, Thomas Mifflin, and Thomas Conway to remove Washington from command. Rather, Lender argues that the plot was a slowly creeping administrative coup executed by the Board of War to usurp Washington’s actual authority and control over military affairs—essentially rendering the title of “Commander-in-Chief” meaningless. One can only speculate what success by the Board of War would have meant for America’s fate, but Lender provides a convincing argument of the threat’s reality and that Washington came out on the other side in a stronger position that set him up for military success. Lender also credits this period with developing and fine-tuning many skills and qualities that served Washington well in his career and played an important role in his selection as the first President.
The book is organized in three sections of topical chapters. In the first section, Lender examines the events and elements that preceded the Cabal. As Lender observes, Washington’s great success in his early 1777 campaigns had the ironic effect of opening up more criticism of the general later that year. With patriot fever riding high following a series of successes, the struggles that befell the Continental army at the end of the year seemed that much worse in contrast. Lender examines the way Washington and his antagonists dealt with each other during this trying period and places their words and actions into the context of late 1777 to show that there was a considerable amount of very real concern over Washington’s ability to win the war. Lender’s assessment removes modern bias in two ways: by perceiving events as did those who lived them (not as we tend to perceive them in hindsight) and by providing a fair assessment to Washington’s critics. Lender’s treatment of those involved in the Cabal does not demonize them for criticizing Washington, but instead provides a balanced assessment that presents a cast of flawed human beings who embodied very real and contemporary concerns in the name of the patriot cause while also pushing their own agendas.
After examining the preliminaries in the first section, Lender proceeds in the next sections to demonstrate the motive and extent of the plot and why it did not succeed. The second section establishes the meat of Lender’s original take on the Cabal: rather than seeking to replace General Washington, the real goal was an administrative coup that would allow Washington to retain his role as Commander-in-Chief, albeit in title only. In this section there is also a shift away from the Conway letter, which receives considerable attention in the first section, to what Lender views as the real threat to Washington’s command: the Board of War. Established to take the place of the numerous committees that developed in response to various needs, by late 1777 the board fell to the control of Mifflin and Gates with the dangerous freedom to push their own agendas which the lack of Congressional oversight allowed. This is where the control exerted over the war effort exhibited itself in what Lender refers to as “mission creep”—rather than playing its intended role of support, the Board of War strove to essentially take Washington’s job, albeit with Washington still nominally in command. This and not the Conway letter, Lender asserts, is the actual Cabal. In the final section of the book, Lender examines why the Cabal failed and how Washington ultimately restored his control over the war effort. Lender connects Washington’s success in his careful dealings with his critics to his later political success. Moreover, Lender believes that Washington’s astute dealings in fending off the Board of War and payback in the form of a smashing victory is one of Washington’s best performances.
To refute the decades-long dismissal of any real threat to Washington’s position, Lender often emphasizes the importance of viewing the evidence and events through the eyes of the times. In retrospect, it is easy to take America’s victory in the Revolution for granted. However, as Lender asserts throughout the narrative, the people living in this time harbored real concerns over the outcome of the war. Although historians that dismiss of any sort of conspiracy or Cabal base their arguments largely upon the lack of clear documentary evidence indicating such a plot, Lender contends that it is illogical to dismiss the plot for this reason because conspirators would not leave such evidence to be found. In fact, Lender points out that the attempts of some of Washington’s critics to alter or hide their correspondence provides indirect documentary evidence. Lender’s approach to research is imaginative but not unfounded and he is consistently able to connect the dots in a convincing way.
In addition to thoroughly and carefully piecing together evidence, Lender’s research and use of materials takes on another level of depth with his careful attention to the way Washington and his contemporaries used words, including the word “cabal” itself. By placing word usage and definition in proper context, Lender further demonstrates that the academic dismissal of the plot is founded on faulty premises which view evidence through a modern rather than contemporary lens. Although Lender works to correct the oversight and omission from the academic history side, the book is engaging and accessible enough to appeal to a wide audience. Students of the Revolution will find this an enjoyable read that adds valuable dimensions and insight into what was happening on the administrative side during the famed winter at Valley Forge.