Washington's Revolution

The Making of America's First Leader

nolead begins By Robert Middlekauff

Alfred A. Knopf. 384 pp. $30

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Reviewed by Michael D. Schaffer

George Washington was the American Revolution's indispensable man.

That's the takeaway from Washington's Revolution, by Robert Middlekauff, professor emeritus of history at the University of California Berkeley. He says in the preface that the title reflects Washington's "enormous importance to the Revolution's course and outcome."

Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams all played major roles, but the Revolution could have gone on without them. Had Washington stopped a musket ball in battle, it's hard to imagine success for the revolutionaries. Middlekauff certainly can't imagine it. "None of the Americans around [Washington] in the army, the Congress or the states commanded the moral force he embodied. Success in maintaining the American effort would not have been achieved without him."

Washington, born 283 years ago today, was more than commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. "He was the political leader of the Revolution, though he drafted no legislation and signed no laws," Middlekauff writes. "But if he failed, it was widely understood, the Revolution failed."

Middlekauff writes a cogent character study of an icon, without either polishing or puncturing Washington's image. He clearly admires his subject, but recognizes Washington's limits, especially in the matter of slavery. Washington the slave-owner recognized the irony of seeking liberty while holding slaves but "did not disavow such rule" - although he did make provisions for freeing his slaves after his death.

Beginning with a glance at Washington's boyhood, Middlekauff moves on to his young manhood and the beginnings of his military career in the French and Indian War. Most of the book deals with Washington as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, shaping the rawest of materials into an effective fighting force and leading it to victory (with a little help from the French).

Self-conscious and sensitive, Washington matured into a confident leader with an unshakable will. No Caesar, he was convinced that the military must always answer to civilian authority. He came from the privileged world of the Virginia planter, but leading the army "made him an American," convinced him that states should stick to local issues and leave "war and problems of general concern" to a national government. He thought national unity crucial to a movement trying to make a nation out of 13 rebellious colonies. "No revolutionary leader," Middlekauff writes, "surpassed Washington in the attempt to lead Americans to think and act together . . . ."

Middlekauff follows Washington to the end of the war, where he leaves him to await his country's next call. That would come with the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and two terms as the nation's first president.

Michael D. Schaffer is the former book review editor of The Inquirer.