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Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader by Robert Middlekauff (review)
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George Washington, American Revolution, Revolutionary War, Continental Army, Martha Custis Washington

Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader. By Robert Middlekauff. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. Pp. 358. Cloth, $30.00.)

Robert Middlekauff ’s new treatment of George Washington’s role in the American Revolution is a deceptively good book. It offers no particularly novel interpretations. The prose is modest and straightforward. The research is solid, but not prodigious. Along with the predictable primary sources and a good number of recent monographs, Middlekauff also cites a few rather dated secondary sources. Yet Washington’s Revolution is judicious, remarkably detailed, and keenly aware of the broader political context in which the Revolutionary War was fought. Middlekauff is well known for The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789 (New York, 1982), the first volume to appear in the stately Oxford History of the United States series, but he also won a Bancroft Prize for The Mathers: Three Generations of Puritan Intellectuals, 1596–1728 (New York, 1971). It is undoubtedly a measure of his skill, and his mastery of his topic, that he has made a fine work of military history look easy.

Middlekauff divides twelve chapters into three parts that trace Washington’s evolution from a “Virginian” to an “American” to, finally, a “Citizen of the World.” Middlekauff ’s use of the ponderous phrase “citizen of the world” may raise some eyebrows, but Washington used it to describe himself (204). Middlekauff suggests it reflected both his dealings with European officers in the Continental Army and an almost prophetic vision of America as a united, self-governing nation among the nations of the world.

Beginning with Washington’s earliest years, Middlekauff describes his misadventures as a young militia officer at the start of the French and Indian War, narrates his transformation into a prosperous and increasingly political patriarch of the Mount Vernon plantation he acquired after the death of his older half-brother Lawrence, and then concentrates on Washington’s service as the commander of the Continental Army. Throughout the Revolution, Washington struggled to keep an army in the field and constantly beseeched Congress and the state governments for support. Poorly trained and badly equipped soldiers came and went as their short enlistments expired. Neither Washington nor the politicians could ever really solve the army’s recruiting and supply problems. [End Page 824] But rare and timely victories at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, kept American morale from collapsing completely. The fighting effectiveness of the army gradually improved until French intervention and British missteps gave Washington an opportunity to win a decisive victory at Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781.

Why did Washington assume the risks associated with leading a revolution? As Middlekauff notes, patriarchs like Washington typically embrace change slowly. Washington’s discontent with British rule could be traced back to the discrimination he experienced as a militia officer in the French and Indian War. His marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Custis brought him into a business relationship with the London mercantile firm Robert Cary and Company; he came to believe his British agents mishandled his affairs. In the 1760s, Washington shifted his focus at Mount Vernon from tobacco production to wheat, but tenants grew tobacco on other properties he owned, and Washington remained a part of the tobacco planters’ world. As fellow planters, including his more cerebral neighbor George Mason, slowly became radicalized, so did Washington.

Whatever his motives, how did Washington become an icon even before American independence was secured? He learned his soldier’s craft during the French and Indian War; Middlekauff makes clear Washington exercised considerably more responsibility during the war than briefer accounts sometimes imply. In addition to an imposing personal presence and a hard-won self-control, he combined an eye for detail and a gift for administration with a sound strategic sense, realizing early in the Revolution he was fighting a war of attrition. His father’s death when Washington was eleven disrupted his formal education, but he learned from experience, and he possessed a remarkable ability to persevere in the face of adversity; Middlekauff calls it an “implacable constancy” (6). Readers will...