Book Review: Revolutionary: George Washington at War by Robert L. O’Connell


Robert L. O’Connell, Revolutionary: Washington at War, e-book, (New York: Random House, 2019), $32 in hardback.

O'Connell's Washington

Robert L. O’Connell is best known for asking “big” questions.  Armed with a PhD in history and a lengthy career in the intelligence community, his books Of Arms & Men: A History of War, Weapons, and Aggression (1989) and Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War (1995) tackled the origins, nature, and future of warfare. In the last decade, however, he has turned his sights on more specific targets: Hannibal at Cannae, William Tecumseh Sherman, and, most recently, George Washington.  Released earlier this year, O’Connell’s Revolutionary: George Washington at War is just the latest work to tackle the martial aspects of George Washington’s life and career.

Revolutionary is first and foremost a work of analytical synthesis.  O’Connell does not examine new source material, plumb the depths of existing archives, or conduct an exhaustive literature survey. Readers will not learn any new facts about the father of his country.  Indeed, O’Connell relies heavily on recently published secondary works. Even first hand-quotations are often drawn from secondary sources: meaning someone else has already identified them as meaningful.

Instead, O’Connell makes new arguments about the nature of the Revolution while telling a standard narrative built around Washington’s biography.  He elevates Washington’s role, naming him as a de facto “generalissimo…the central protagonist in a profound national revolution, at once the ultimate director of all its violent activities, and, through sheer force of will and decency, the chief brake on its potential for excess.”  Thus, examining the Revolution through his life has powerful explanatory potential. His thesis has several parts.

First, O’Connell accepts that the American Revolution was about ideas, and not merely a contest in pursuit of economic self-interest. But, he finds its source less in the ideas of Locke or Hobbes and more in the “Country Party” critique of 18th century British politics.  That critique originated in Britain, where radical Whig pamphleteers accused the Walpole government of centralizing authority at the expense of local decision-making, raised concerns about debt, expressed their worries that a standing army represented a threat to liberty, and attacked the expansion of cronyism as a symptom of fundamental corruption.  O’Connell reduces the entire critique to a kind of conspiracy theory, which found deep roots in the American colonies and became a powerful mobilizing force.

Second, O’Connell asserts that his take differs from conventional military treatments of the American Revolution by proclaiming that the British effort to crush the rebellion was doomed from the start. Simply, it was a war they could not win because the problem of controlling an entire seaboard an ocean away was too large for the military tools available in the day.  To make things worse for the British, they practiced a particularly brutal form of warfare that ensured the colonial populace would remain hostile.  For that reason, O’Connell concludes that the American Revolution would have survived Washington’s loss, but that it would have been a different war.

Third, O’Connell concludes that the unique nature of the American Revolution was defined by Washington’s character.  By their nature, political revolutions are prone to excess:  think the French Revolution and the guillotine or the Russian Revolution and its purges.  But, thanks to Washington—the empowered generalissimo—and his commitment to moderation and decency, Americans curbed the tendency to follow a more extreme model of political change.  Exploring how Washington came to be that person constitutes a significant portion of Revolutionary.

O’Connell’s book is an easy read, even charming at times. He refers to the father of his country as “GW” or “our hero.”  While it might seem dismissive to some readers, the familiarity helps move things along.  After all, there are only so many ways to write “George Washington” in a text without becoming unduly repetitive or engaging in great feats of Rube Goldbergesque syntax.  Occasionally, O’Connell delves into psychoanalysis, a risky no-no, going so far as to explain Washington’s relationship with Sally Fairfax as an episode of infidelity and betrayal at worst or an exercise in sexual frustration at best.  The Washington-Fairfax relationship has perplexed Washington’s biographers for decades and historians seem inclined to explain it based on their broader interpretations of Washington, rather than any definitive facts.  O’Connell didn’t need to go there, but raising it helps humanize Washington for readers new to the time period.  Readers will also find assertions and unsupported conclusions that should, at a minimum, raise an eyebrow.  But, rather than getting lost in the trees and dismissing the entire book based on disagreement with a few premises, a reader who focuses on O’Donnell’s bigger picture will be rewarded.  At times, reading Revolutionary felt more like listening to a great college lecture (or several) than paging my way through another tome.  Still, the familiarity and easy acceptance of debatable assumptions will not be every reader’s cup of tea.

The real challenge in Revolutionary is O’Connell’s argument.   Reductionism is both the great boon and bane of the scientific method, whether in history, political science, or biology.  Hypotheses have to be simplified in order to possess any explanatory power or be testable, but reducing the phenomenon of massive political change to so few variables risks missing the complexity and nuance that give human affairs their contingent nature.  Reducing the Revolution’s philosophical foundations to a conspiracy theory, for example, doesn’t give enough credit to the learned men who as readily compared their situation to that of the ancient Greek and Roman republics as a well-off Englishman in the 18thcentury.  The notion that the British could not win the war militarily does not mean they couldn’t win it politically, which is ultimately where the outcome of all wars is determined.  The British failure to connect military means with political ends is one of strategy, not a preordained impossibility.  They did much better, for instance, when it came to conquering the Indian subcontinent, even more vast and distant from the British isles.

But, count me on board the O’Connell logic train when it comes to the critical nature of Washington’s character in defining what it meant for the Americans to be successful in the war.  His relative charity toward enemies, his insistence on facing down mutinous officers ready to stage a kind of coup, his dutiful public deference to civilian authority, and his decision to step down voluntarily from his post as commander-in-chief and eventually as President were some of the greatest acts of the age.  Without that self-restraint and Washington’s commitment to retiring from public life to tend his own “vine and fig tree,” the American Revolution and founding might have come closer to the French model, eaten its young, and eventually resulted the emergence of a Napoleonesque monarchy. Even Lafayette, who had Washington’s example to follow, could not prevent that outcome in his place of birth. In any event, the challenges in O’Connell’s argument are not “mistakes,” and it would be wrong to focus on disagreeing with them in whole or in part.  Instead, we should view them as new ideas and interpretations to be considered and debated.  Whether in the end one agrees with O’Connell or not, readers will have a firmer handle on how they view George Washington for having engaged with his arguments.

Revolutionary: George Washington at War will not take the place of Stephen Brumwell’s George Washington: Gentleman Warrior, Ron Chernow’s Washingon (or at least those chapters on the war), Edward Lengel’s General George Washington: A Military Life, or any other number of studies of Washington at war.  It’s not that kind of work.  But, it deserves a place on any shelf next to Don Higginbotham’s George Washington and the American Military Tradition because it will make the reader look at the Father of His Country and the Revolution in new ways.

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