The Continental Army was no juggernaut when George Washington assumed its leadership in June of 1775. His acceptance speech to Congress did little to inspire confidence, either, concluding, “I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
But the new commander in chief might have been the least of the nascent army’s problems, according to Benjamin Sawyer, who spoke about Washington at the session “The Victory of Retreat” during the 2023 Legislative Summit.
Sawyer, a senior instructor of history at Middle Tennessee State University, amusingly illustrated that point in a faux sports-style matchup that revealed the British Navy as “No. 1 in the World,” while the Colonists had “No Navy at all!” The faceoff didn’t improve when it came to armies, with the British again No. 1 (“And they have Hessian mercenaries!”) while the Continental Army was “established the other day (and) have never played on the same team until now,” Sawyer says.
All of which explains why Washington and his troops were in a constant state of retreat during the war’s early battles. By the time the Continental Army set up camp for the winter of 1777, after its first victory in the war following a surprise crossing of the Potomac River, they were cold, hungry, unpaid, without proper winter clothing or weapons—and many were about to complete their terms of enlistment.
George Washington’s Leadership Lessons
- If you ask others to sacrifice, be willing to do so yourself.
- When achieving the goal involves suffering, don’t exempt yourself.
- Leadership is not one thing; it always depends on the goal and the context.
- A singular focus on achieving a goal can serve as an inoculation to corruption.
- Sometimes stepping back is the best way to move forward.
“Where other leaders might have left, Washington didn’t,” Sawyer says. “He shared the sacrifice and the suffering of his soldiers, a powerful sign of his leadership.” That action, which began the slow path to victory concluded by the 1781 surrender of the British, illustrates the first of what Sawyer calls the “Three Critical Moments” for Washington: leading the Continental Army, establishing the Constitution and defining the presidency.
Like many things in Washington’s life, his role in creating the Constitution was not his first choice. In fact, Sawyer recounted that Washington remarkably surrendered his commission as commander in chief after the war and went home to Mount Vernon for a more normal life. But leaders such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison implored him to head up the Virginia delegation to the Continental Congress, knowing that Washington’s involvement was central to all Colonies accepting the Constitution they sought to create.
“Then, as soon as he gets to Philadelphia, he is voted the president of the convention,” Sawyer says. “Now he is not a political theorist or a finance expert, but by sitting there he is lending his credibility to the proceedings. And he’s also sitting there as they are creating the position of president—while looking at him for the role.”
When he becomes the first president—humbly noting “no event could have filled me with greater anxieties”—Washington begins the work of his third ‘critical moment.’ And he succeeds again, Sawyer says, despite the fact that Article 2 of the Constitution is at best “pretty vague” about his duties. It noted, for example, that the job “may require the (president’s) Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the Executive Departments,” but doesn’t list a single executive department. No matter: Washington went on to establish them, along with a great deal of other work that helped create the presidency as we know it today.
Sawyer repeatedly highlighted Washington’s selflessness. In fact, he jokingly noted, Washington’s death was “one of the only times that he got to do what he wanted to do. Because for the past decade he had been doing what he had been asked to do by his country.”
But even his funeral didn’t follow his wishes. “He had left behind plans, in which he requested there not be a big fuss, that there be a small gathering of friends and family at Mount Vernon. What he got was a massive ceremony with 300 eulogies at Mount Vernon and similar events across the rest of the country.”
Sawyer also addressed what he called the ‘elephant in the room’ about the Founding Fathers—the fact, for example, that Washington owned slaves. Sawyer implored the audience to get “get over the mythology of the Founding Fathers.”
“They lived their lives with uncertainties just like we do in our lives,” he says. “If you’re unwilling to see the good and bad in them, you will miss the point. … And if we think greatness was inherent in them, we cease to expect it out of ourselves. Don’t deny the fact that you have the opportunity to be the best of your generation.”
Joe Rassenfoss is a Denver-based freelance writer.
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