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Posts Tagged ‘General George Washington’

In our world, there are lots of famous pairs.  There are a lot of things that just work really well together, like they were meant to be.  And as we start the fifth year of Today’s History Lesson, let’s name some.

Chocolate and peanut butter.
Donnie and Marie.
Spaghetti and meatballs.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto.
Calvin and Hobbes.
Blue Falcon and Dog Wonder.
Abbott and Costello.
Sonny and Cher (ok…admittedly, they worked slightly less well together).
Starksy and Hutch.
Brooks and Dunn.

You get the picture.  In the political world, there have famous pairings, too.  We immediately think of duos like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or maybe John and Abigail Adams.  Lexington and Concord.  Valley Forge and Baron von Steuben.  Republicans and tax breaks for the wealthy…I jest, I jest!!!  Hmmm…Democrats and deficits…there, does that even it out?  Anyways, we could go on and on, but I’ll focus instead in one.

George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.  We’ve talked about both of these immensely influential Founders on many occasions, but it’s time we put them together.

Hamilton and Washington were a team for the better part of twenty-five years.  Washington, the first President, was the calm, steady leader.  Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, was the impetuous, forceful subordinate.  It fact, it’s very safe to say that during Washington’s first term (and much of his second), Alexander was the second most powerful man in America.  He was more powerful than Vice President Adams.  He was more powerful than Secretary of State Jefferson.

Hamilton’s influence made him a lot of enemies, and Washington’s deference to Hamilton made a great many exceedingly jealous.  Thomas Jefferson, in particular, came to believe that Washington was little more than a marionette, dancing on the strings manipulated from above by a power-maddened Hamilton.

But George Washington’s trust in Hamilton was built on years of experience in close proximity to the man.  Whether you like Hamilton or hate him (or are completely indifferent), you must know that Washington was a pretty good judge of people, and he knew Hamilton better than most.

Their collaboration began on this day in history…March 1, 1777.  George Washington was a General…in fact, he was the General of the army.  Alexander Hamilton was an artillery company Captain, who had distinguished himself in the Battle of White Plains and the Battle of Trenton.  His leadership abilities and good performance under pressure (and under fire) had made him something of a desirable commodity.  General Nathanael Greene had requested his services.  Henry Knox (at that time a Brigadier General) had also sought out Hamilton to be an aide.  Hamilton had refused both, preferring to earn his Revolutionary glory on the field of battle.

But when General Washington invited Hamilton to join his staff as an aide-de-camp, it was an offer he simply couldn’t refuse.  He accepted the General’s offer and joined his staff on this day with the elevated rank of Lieutenant Colonel.  And that’s where this “dynamic duo” got its start.

Speaking of Captains, our son learned today that he has been promoted to the rank of Captain.  Congratulations to him!!

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As I type this morning, folks in New York City are preparing for the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  And if it’s anything like previous spectacles, there will be floats and bands, convertibles with people waving to the crowds, and probably a celebrity or two.  It’s a big deal.  But Macy’s hasn’t been around forever.  Neither has Thanksgiving, for that matter.  And if you had been in New York City 227 years ago, it would have looked nothing like it will this morning on TV.

But there was a parade…of sorts.

The end of the American Revolution and American victory meant that the remaining British soldiers needed to get out of town.  And New York was one of the last major towns where pro-British sentiments were strong.  But things were changing.  As spring warmed to summer in 1783, those who considered themselves loyal to the British Crown began leaving.  Government personnel, businessmen, and families all headed to Canada or back across the Atlantic.  The loss of businesses was particularly hurtful, as lots of money and jobs were removed from New York’s economy.  By the thousands they pulled up stakes and left.

And what’s more, since the British military had taken control in 1776, New York had been under martial law and had been left in a terrible state of disrepair.  Much of the damage done by the fire in September of that year had never been cleaned up.  Fences and trees had been chopped up for firewood.  The skeletal remains of homes and businesses testified to a much better past, while the cattle roaming the streets and piles of garbage were the reality of the present.  Looking at the harbor, one visitor (probably holding his nose) said, “Noisome vapors arise from the mud left in the docks and slips at low water, and unwholesome smells are occasioned by such a number of people being crowded together in so small a compass, almost like herrings in a barrel, most of them very dirty and not a small number sick of some disease.”  It had become a shantytown.

But on November 25, 1783, there was a parade…a military parade.  Evacuation Day it was called.  The day the last of the British soldiers left town, and new ownership arrived.  The incoming group was led by General Henry Knox, whose first act was to raise the American flag on a brand new flag pole (British soldiers had taken down their flag and greased the pole on their way out).  He was followed by General Washington and Governor George Clinton and their guard.

The remaining citizens of New York were ecstatic.  Seven long years under the thumb of the British was more than long enough, and the day was one of celebration.  And now, the last British outpost was under the flag of freedom.  America was truly independent.  Ron Chernow summarizes by writing, “America had been purged of the last vestiges of British rule.  It had been a long and grueling experience – the eight years of fighting counted as the country’s longest conflict until Vietnam – and the cost had been exceedingly steep in blood and treasure.”  Indeed, it has been estimated that upwards of 25,000 soldiers had been killed in the Revolution.  This amounted to about 1% of the nation’s population, a ratio only surpassed by the Civil War.

Macy’s or no, a parade was most appropriate.

Have a wonderful, and safe, Thanksgiving.

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Our drive back from Estes Park was good, and it’s good to be home, but it’s also a bit sad to see a vacation end.  It was like that back in August when we returned from a couple days in Phoenix.  I’m well aware of the need to come home…work awaits, and we’re not celebrities that possess bank accounts overflowing with disposable income.  But still, I wish vacations, wherever we enjoy them, didn’t have to end.

Ok…

The fall of 1777 saw the Continental Army in a pretty bad state.  General Horatio Gates stunning victory at Saratoga (which I promise we’ll discuss at some point) was the lone high point in an autumn of despair and defeat.  For General George Washington, it was one defeat after another.  Losses at Cooch’s Bridge and Chadd’s Ford had left the capital of Philadelphia open to  General William Howe’s British Redcoats…and the Second Continental Congress booking the fastest flights out of town.

But as bad as their military results were, it was the general condition of Washington’s men that was most appalling.  The soldiers were destitute.  Many were sick, many more were hungry, and most all of them were inadequately clothed.  In his book Washington’s Secret War, Thomas Fleming recounts the Commander-in-Chief’s words to Alexander Hamilton, then a Lt. Colonel.  Writing in mid-September, Washington lamented, “The distressed situation of the army for want of blankets and many necessary articles of clothing is truly deplorable.”

There was no relief in sight.  The Congress, which was busy “committee’ing” itself to death, was broke.  Many Colonists, unwilling to accept I.O.U.’s from a bankrupt government while becoming increasingly convinced of eventual British victory, found it easier to sell their goods to the British, who actually paid for stuff.  So the Continental Army went without, which made it more difficult to fight, which made British success more sure, which made Colonists fearful of supplying its Army, which…well, you see the vicious circle.  General Washington was within his right to simply take from the people what his men needed, but Fleming correctly asserts that “he was always aware that he was fighting a war for the civilian hearts and minds as well as for military victory.”  Washington used this power very sparingly and with much delicacy.

Against this backdrop, it’s probably easy to understand how Washington’s defeat in the Battle of Germantown was almost inevitable.  Philadelphia had fallen in late September (just days after Washington’s lament to Hamilton), and General Howe had divided his forces, leaving some to defend the captured city while moving a sizeable group (about 9,000 strong) north to Germantown.  General Washington saw his opponent’s division of forces as a chance to strike back.

Early in the morning of October 4, 1777, he divided his 11,000 men into 4 columns and prepared for battle.  But just as at Chadd’s Ford, foggy conditions created confusion among the Continentals, and 2 of the columns got lost.  In a couple of hours, the fighting was over.  The Continental Army retreated from the field suffering 152 killed, 521 wounded, and 400+ captured.  The British held their positions at the cost of 71 dead and 450 wounded.

Washington had shown pretty good battlefield tactics, and a victory here (coupled with the victory at Saratoga) may have caused the British the reconsider their stake in the Colonies.  But his men lacked the necessary training (and they certainly lacked the necessary support and equipment) to deliver a knockout blow at this point.  And what’s more, members of Congress now began to doubt that their military leader had the moxie to successfully engage the British.  Whispers of a replacement, one General Horatio Gates (hero of Saratoga), were now being heard.

The Continental Army would engage the British in minor skirmishes over the next two months, but the Battle of Germantown left General Washington’s men with little choice but to find a place close enough to keep tabs on the British, but far enough to keep a major engagement off the table.  That place?…Valley Forge.

Recommended Reading:  Washington’s Secret War

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This evening’s (brief) edition of Today’s History Lesson begins with a “thank-you” to Frances Hunter.  Frances Hunter’s American Heroes is a terrific website devoted to the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.  Yeah, you know, the two guys that discovered the Pacific Ocean.  Well, if that’s all you think there is to the story, you have no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes.  If you haven’t been, go visit.  It’s like Morpheus offering you “the red pill.”  While writing about Andre Michaux, Frances held a contest which I happened to win, earning me a copy of Hunter’s latest book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and it just arrived yesterday).  It’s historical fiction that includes Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, the afore-mentioned Michaux, and a host of other historical characters.  I’m super-excited to dig in.

Alright…

Thomas Hickey.  A member of General George Washington’s Life Guard and conspirator in the plot to either kidnap or kill the General.  When we visited him last week, he had just been caught and arrested.  But June 28, 1776 would see no declaration for independence for this young Sergeant.

Nope.

He was to be made an example for other soldiers who would might consider acting against their uniform.  He was taken to a field and hanged on a gallows.  But his sentence was not witnessed by only a few, as may have been the case of Major John André.  Instead it was done in front of 20,000 Continental Army soldiers.  And while there were 20 or so arrests made in the case, no one else received the death penalty, as they turned “state’s evidence” to further implicate Hickey.

As mentioned before, the actual plot to kill General Washington is a bit murky, but there is little doubt that it existed.  The fact that everyone turned on Thomas Hickey may be the cause of the glorification of the story down through the years.  The famous “Poisoned Peas” tale is likely just a tale, and may come out of the sensationalism.  As it goes, Hickey made an arrangement with one of Washington’s servant girls to lace his peas with arsenic.  The servant girl warned the General who, rather than eat the peas, threw them out to the chickens roaming in the yard.  They ate the peas and promptly died, leading to Hickey’s arrest.

That certainly doesn’t coincide with what we discussed last week, but as we know, stories get bigger over time.  Anyways, there you have it.  Hickey’s hanging and some vegetables that most kids already believe to be poisoned.

I happen to love peas, as long as they’re not from a can…those are deadly.

Recommended Reading: Thomas Hickey – This is some good information. Keep in mind that records of this incident (now more than 230 years old) are murky. But I think this is interesting reading.

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During the American Revolution, New York City was very much a center for British sympathizers.  That’s not especially surprising, as we’ve mentioned it on a couple of occasions.  And what’s more, the violence and persecution (I think the term is appropriate here) against them was widespread, as the pro-independence Colonists there had little trouble finding Loyalists to torment.

So when General George Washington arrived on the scene in April of 1776 to oversee military preparations, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out that the Loyalists might target him in order to exact a bit of revenge.  The British, still stinging from the loss of Boston in March, probably would have welcomed a change of leadership at the head of the Continental Army.

On June 21, 1776, a plot to convince Patriot soldiers to defect to the British was uncovered.  It was orchestrated by William Tryon, New York’s former governor, who had been ousted from his position by the Patriots.  David Matthews, New York City’s current mayor and a Tory, was accused of funding the operation, which involved bribes to Continental Army soldiers.  And while it was never completely proven, Matthews spent some time in prison.

But most shocking was the discovery that members of Washington’s guard, most notably, Sergeant Thomas Hickey, were involved.  Having been assigned to his position in March, he was caught passing counterfeit money.  While in prison, he told a fellow soldier that his crimes were part of a much larger plot.

Evidence seems to suggest that included in the plans was the capture or assassination of General Washington and other members of his staff.  There doesn’t seem to be 100% consensus on whether a plot to kill the General actually existed.  Some historians seem to think so, while others are doubtful.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton (which I’ve quoted dozens of times), Ron Chernow writes of a definite assassination plot.  So I’m inclined to believe that one existed.

How far-reaching such a plan reached is hard to say, but we know for sure that only Thomas Hickey’s neck would feel the bite of the hangman’s rope, as his execution was carried out a week later.

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The winter of 1779-1780 was a pretty bad one for thirteen Colonies struggling to free themselves from cross-Atlantic control.  First off, the weather was miserable.  “Washington’s army, encamped at Morristown, New Jersey, suffered more than it had at Valley Forge from severe frosts and six-foot banks of snow.”  Those words, from Ralph Ketcham’s extensive biography of James Madison, succinctly summarize some of the worst conditions anyone could remember.  Even the British, with a recent run of successes, called a halt to operations.

A young Madison (shown above), snowbound in Virginia, took the time to investigate the Colonies’ second problem:  money.  The Colonies had lots of money floating around…roughly $200 million in paper currency.  The real issue was that it wasn’t worth the paper on which it was printed.  The previous couple of years had seen currency values fall, in some cases, to less than 1% of their face value.  And James Madison came to some interesting conclusions.

After extensive reading, he determined that the value of money…well, let’s just quote him directly.  “…does not depend on its quantity.  It depends on the credit of the state issuing it, and on the time of its redemption; and is not otherwise affected by the quantity, than as the quantity may be supposed to endanger or postpone the redemption.”

Of course, a good many people disagree with that premise, even today.  Many times, we’ll say things like, “If the government has trouble paying its bills, they’ll just print more money.”  It’s a derisive statement that implies the following:  if the government prints more money, there are more dollars in the system for the same amount of goods and services.  This serves to make dollars less valuable and, by extension, goods and services more expensive.  I’m no economist, so while that line of thinking resonates with me and seems to make sense, I have no idea as to whether things really operate like that.

Anyways, Madison’s thoughts flew in the face of conventional wisdom during the Revolution as well.  So it’s not surprising that he disagreed with the rest of the Continental Congress when, on March 18, 1780, that body resolved to reduce the $200 million of outstanding currency to just $5 million with a 1:40 reverse monetary split.  Ketcham writes, “It was hoped the new currency would escape depreciation and thus stabilize Congressional finances…Yet the act stopping the Continental currency presses took power from Congress precisely when it needed more to prosecute the war.”

James Madison was despondant.  Writing to Thomas Jefferson, his new (and eventual life-long) confidant, his depressed pen would write, “It is to be observed that the situation of Congress has undergone a total change from what it originally was.  Whilst they exercised the indefinite power of emitting money on the credit of their constituents they had the whole wealth and resources of the continent within their command, and could go on with their affairs independently and as they pleased.  Since the resolution passed for shutting the press, this power has been entirly given up and they are now as dependent on the States as the King of England is on the Parliament.”

General Washington, from his vantage point in an army that, to this point, was largely unpaid and very poorly-provisioned, said, “I see one head gradually changing into thirteen…I see the power of Congress declining for the consideration and respect which is due to them as the grand representative body of America, and am fearful of the consequences.”

A twenty-something Alexander Hamilton, now part of Washington’s military staff, pored over the situation and partially agreed with Madison, though he strongly believed that foreign loans were the best solution.  He would write, “The quantity of money in circulation is certainly a chief cause of its decline.  But we find it is depreciated more than fives times as much as it ought to be. … The excess is derived from opinion, a want of confidence.”  These words were part of a letter, more than six-thousand words in length, that outlined a financial system and was composed under a pseudonym and sent to a congressman (Robert Morris).

But for the time being, the devaluation of the currency was a painful decision, and wiped out the savings of many Americans.  And 1780 was only 3 months old, and much more hardship was in the works.

Recommended Reading:  Alexander Hamilton’s letter to Robert Morris – It’s hard to believe he was just 23 years old when he penned this.

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On February 18, 1776, a young Alexander Hamilton sent a letter to the Royal Danish-American Gazette that he was joining the military.  Big news?  I’m not sure it was at the time and, in the subsequent 235 years, millions of men and women have made the same honorable decision.

Hamilton, having arrived in the Colonies less than four years before, was now a student, a writer, and a budding revolutionist.  He was entrenched at King’s College and, as a young man of just 19 (or so, depending on his exact date of birth), had already studied enough to receive a bachelor’s degree and begin advanced law studies.  He was also an avid writer, publishing a series of articles (anonymously) called “The Monitor” in the New-York Tribune from November of 1775 to early February 1776, as the Colonies were by now in a declared (by the Crown) state of rebellion, and full-out war loomed.

So his decision may have come as a surprise to some, but Hamilton was fascinated with the order of the military, its command structure, the drills, and the precision of it all…even though he saw much more of those things in the British Redcoat formations than in the Colonial militias.  In fact, he was already serving in a volunteer militia company.  And when New York’s Provincial Congress announced the formation of an artillery company to defend New York, Hamilton jumped at the chance to join.

In his letter, which he did not sign, he wrote, “It is uncertain whether it may ever be in my power to send you another line…I am going into the army and perhaps ere long may be destined to seal with my blood the sentiments defended by my pen.  Be it so, if heaven decree it.  I was born to die and my reason and conscience tell me it is impossible to die in a better or more important cause.”

And on March 14, 1776, Hamilton was assigned to lead the artillery company with the rank of Captain.  The (good) fallout from this event is extensive.  Alexander Hamilton trained his men well, he dressed them well (partly at his own expense), and he worked them into a cohesive unit that served with distinction as open conflict with the British heated up.

His conduct got him noticed by General George Washington, who eventually added the young Captain to his staff (with a new rank of Lieutenant Colonel).  And of course, the rest is history, as the two would go on to form one of the strongest tandems in the Revolution and in the formation of a young America.

And it all began with Hamilton’s good work as the “Captain of a Company of Artillery.”

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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