What's George Washington's legacy? A military historian answers.

Robert O’Connell, author of ‘Revolutionary: George Washington at War,’ explains how the first American president left such a strong mark in history.

Kalev Sepp/Courtesy of Random House

While it was bitter and bloody, the American battle for independence didn’t descend into atrocities and chaos like so many revolutions before it. What was different this time around? The man in charge, a new book says. In Revolutionary: George Washington at War, military historian Robert O’Connell explores how the first U.S. president’s commitment to decency in war and peace set a crucial new standard.  

Q: What made George Washington so revolutionary as a revolutionary?

Revolutions have a tendency to turn [excessively] violent, and they’ve killed millions upon millions of people. Sometimes they get to the point where the whole point of the revolution is lost, and it plods on as violence. In the French Revolution, for example, thousands of heads literally roll. But that was never done in the United States. Washington managed a long and vicious war in a way that minimized the casualties and made reconciliation and moving forward that much easier afterward. That’s a great achievement.

Q: How could things have gone in a worse direction?

Revolutionaries often start killing each other or having each other killed. In this war, Benedict Arnold suddenly betrays Washington, and that’s a moment when you could start arresting people and setting up firing squads. 

Instead, Washington ended up hanging just one British major as a big exclamation point. From what I can see, he had an almost innate sense of decency. He bought into this revolutionary theory about what a good leader should be, that it should not include massacring anybody. 

He always thought the revolution would be sullied if he descended to those levels. 

He also wouldn’t let his troops simply go to farms and forage and take food. He believed that the countryside had to believe in the revolution. He did that at the cost of his own men, but it was a brilliant strategy because the British were doing the absolute opposite.

Q: Was he specifically trying to set a new standard for revolutions?

He was not worried about precedent, and he wouldn’t have thought he was innovating. He was creating his own revolution, meeting his situation the best he could.

Q: What else did you learn about him?

He was a man driven by his own reputation. He wanted to be held in the highest esteem by everyone he could, and that may have been the No. 1 thing that drove him. He hesitated to run for president because he thought it would sully his reputation.

Q: Of all the famous presidents, Washington is one of the hardest to know. Why?

He didn’t want you to know him. There was always an element of reserve that only grew over time. And [his wife] Martha burned all of his letters except one ... in which he told her that he’d gotten command of the army. He’d used “every endeavor in my power to avoid it not only because of my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of it being a trust too great for my capacity.”

Q: What’s his legacy in terms of standing up for decency?

Even in today’s world, when white males are not held in high esteem, I still think Washington is an admirable person. He provides a terrific example.

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