Obama Can Learn From George Washington, Baron Von Steuben, and Maybe Even George Will

The tension between liberty and order is in our blood. Obama, like Washington, can harness both.

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By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

Early in the morning of December, 26, 1776—arguably the most important day in the history of the United States—Gen. George Washington's battered little army, having made its famous crossing of the ice-strewn Delaware River, was creeping toward Trenton, N.J., through snow, sleet, and freezing rain.

Washington was risking all on this audacious assault. The Hessian troops holding Trenton for the British were formidable, professional soldiers. His only hope was to march all night, and surprise them at dawn. The Revolution itself was at stake.

And so Washington was stunned to encounter not Hessian sentinels, but a company of marauding Virginians, loudly stomping around the outskirts of town. They had crossed the river the day before, without informing the general, hoping to kill some Hessians and avenge a dead comrade.

Washington exploded. "You sir, may have ruined all my plans," he told the Virginia commander. Those present remembered "that they had never seen Washington in such a fury," writes historian David Hackett Fischer. "Once again, the indiscipline of the American Army and even of its high officers threatened his entire operation."

I've been reading Fischer's grand, Pulitzer Prize-winning account of that momentous winter—Washington's Crossing—and Robert Middlekauff's equally splendid history of the Revolution, The Glorious Cause , after finding, in my research, that Clarence Darrow's great-grandfather was a soldier in Washington's army.

And what strikes me about Washington, reading these and other accounts of the Revolution, are not his military or strategic skills, formidable as they were, but the leadership he displayed at resolving the two great competing American urges: for freedom and for order.

Like the ornery Virginians, the soldiers in Washington's militia would come and go when they saw fit. Once a battle seemed lost, in sharp contrast to their ultradisciplined German and British foes, they would simply, without shame, quit the field. Their officers were a mixed lot—soldiers of fortune or untrained idealists—and their leaders in Congress were awful quartermasters and worse paymasters; it was, after all, a war that began over taxes.

"Washington's explanation—one which made him feel both despair and pride—was that they were free men. Their freedom brought them to revolution and, paradoxically, made them incapable of fighting it well," Middlekauff writes. "The freedom which filled American life inhibited not only the fighting qualities of his troops but also the large-scale organization of men in a regular army and, behind the army, the political organization on all levels necessary to its support."

Washington concluded that "the best that could be done in the Revolution was to create a standing army composed of free men broken of some of the worst habits freedom engendered." And so he adjusted. He addressed his soldiers as "Gentlemen" and "Brave Fellows" and appealed to their honor, and their devotion to the cause. And enough stuck around, and fought, and won. 

None of us are marching barefoot, like some in Washington's army that winter, leaving bloody footprints in the Jersey snow. We're not holding the end of the Union line on the slopes of Little Round Top. We're not watching the USS Arizona explode and sink into the mud at Pearl Harbor, or standing firm at Bastogne.

But it strikes me that the challenge for President Obama, as he confronts war and religious fanaticism abroad and economic hard times at home, is still a variation of that faced by Washington at Trenton. We are a noisy, opinionated, riotous democracy—free men and women always in the grip of "the worst habits freedom has engendered." These are testing days for those in the White House. The tension between liberty and order is in our blood. Paul Krugman is calling them timid, and George Will says they're despotic.

If Obama and the members of Team Audacity find themselves in need of reassurance, they may want to cross the street to Lafayette Park. There they will find a statue of Baron Von Steuben, a Prussian mercenary who (by grossly exaggerating his military experience) got the job of training Washington's troops. At first, Steuben despaired. Getting the Americans to drill was akin to herding rats.

But, gradually, Steuben began to appreciate the American character, and to recognize Washington's genius. The soul of the Americans, Steuben wrote a friend in Europe, "was not in the least to be compared with that of the Prussians, Austrians or French."

In Europe, "you say to your soldier, 'Do this,' and he doeth it," Steuben wrote. But in America, "I am obliged to say, 'This is the reason why you ought to do that,' and he does it."

Not that it is ever easy. More than two centuries later, Steuben's multilingual profanity on the training ground is still remembered—and celebrated.

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