He was a man transformed and a transformative man. He was the essential, indispensable actor in this continent’s essential, indispensable passage. He was also an overachiever, a man with prospects that were bright but not brilliant — a second-class intellect, as Oliver Wendell Holmes described Franklin Roosevelt, but with a first-class temperament.
In his own time, as in ours, George Washington was considered a godlike figure, brave and virtuous, loyal and true. He possessed the military experience required to muster a badly trained force for battle and then to master an imperial foe, and the character to inspire his soldiers to persevere in the struggle and then, as president, to preserve the fragile democracy his men had won.
All this is the raw material Robert Middlekauff mines, and then refines, in “Washington’s Revolution,’’ a useful and readable new portrait of Washington at war. Much if not all of this will be familiar even to the armchair history buff. Anyone who enters this territory is required to supply an original insight, and Middlekauff, known for his magisterial volume on the Revolution and the early national period for the Oxford History of the United States, does so, offering an important one.
Middlekauff advances the idea that Washington was not only the winner of the American Revolution, but also the essence of the Revolution. His army created the unity the Revolution required; his vision created the sense of American community that set the new nation apart; and his character attributes would be those that would come to be considered quintessentially American.
Including this: “Like many Americans of the time, he began as a provincial and became a nationalist, without however shedding all of his provincial skin.’’ More than a quarter of a millennium later, that description still holds for most of us.
The battles Washington fought defined not only his life but also our own, shaping not only the the new nation but also the new era of Enlightenment the Revolution (and later, the French Revolution) would create. Middlekauff points out that Washington also would engage in the important questions that would define the South of his time and the decades that would follow: managing slaves, cultivating tobacco, and engaging in politics.
As the rebellious spirit grew in the Virginia House of Burgesses and throughout the American colonies, Washington took a firm stand but was by no means outspoken, leaning more toward winning self-government within the British Empire than winning independence from it.
But by 1775 he was in uniform again, in command of an army with not enough powder, not enough lead, not enough muskets, not enough food, not enough horses, not enough tents, not enough clothing, and above all not enough discipline. In truth, Washington’s men comprised more a mob than a military force, and an unruly, unfit, and unorganized one at that. He complained of “sundry officers of an Inferiour kind.’’ His men lacked both fortitude and fortifications.
But, Middlekauff tells us, Washington had his own style, one peculiarly suited to the age and to the task he faced against unfortunate British soldiers and Hessian soldiers of fortune. He knew the land, and he knew how to use maps to his advantage — small things that paid big rewards. Stealth and surprise, especially in crossing the icy Delaware on a Christmas night marked by what we now call a wintry mix, were his friends.
Thus Middlekauff, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, portrays Washington as an administrator, manager, strategist — and visionary. Parts of that we knew, of course, but his triumph is to portray Washington as a man of parts, as more than a cardboard cutout hero or a sterile vessel of virtues. In this incarnation, Washington, possessed of an instinct for what Middlekauff calls “swiftness, deception and force’’ — words that seem unfamiliar in the Washington mythology — may be even a more heroic figure than usually portrayed.
We know, too, that Washington’s great achievement as president, along with giving dignity and humility to the office, was molding a sense of American community. Middlekauff shows us that that impulse began far earlier, in his army command.
Subtle shifts in Washington’s language emphasize this. During the war he began to speak of “the most righteous cause’’ and to address “My Countrymen,’’ the result being that he nurtured in his men the notion that, as Middlekauff puts it, “their fight was for themselves, not for an overmighty lord and master.’’
This volume is an apt companion to “His Excellency,’’ Joseph J. Ellis’s 2004 Washington biography. It portrays Washington as a soldier and a gentleman and, above all, as a gentleman soldier. He defeated Cornwallis at Yorktown and then gave him dinner. He advocated generous treatment of the Indians. He supported his men in peace as well as war.
“Washington, more than any American leader in or out of Congress, by his actions and his example, held together the political structure that constituted the United States,’’ Middlekauff concludes. His argument is that Washington was the Revolution and the Revolution was Washington. A new nation can do worse. Most have.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.