As the Continental Congress declared independence in Philadelphia in July 1776, George Washington’s army of fewer than 20,000 volunteers eyed uneasily the build-up of the largest amphibious force in history outside of New York City. By the end of August, after methodically disgorging well-trained, battle-hardened soldiers from their ships, some 30,000 British infantry, artillery and cavalry personnel, thirty warships and 400 naval transports started moving toward Brooklyn and Manhattan.Knowing that their untrained volunteer militia could not stand up to British professionals, Washington’s officers advised him to avoid a direct confrontation. They proposed a “Fabian approach”, after the Roman General Fabius who had defeated Hannibal in Italy with guerrilla tactics. Nathaniel Greene, later Washington’s most trusted general, favored harassing attacks to wear down the British, who faced challenges in Europe and around the globe. Greene argued that Washington could concede all of America’s major cities if necessary but dared not risk the destruction of the entire army, which embodied the still fragile national will. Greene warned Washington against fighting “the Enemy without the least Prospect of Success.” Washington would have none of it. He was bent on a strategy of knock-out blows to drive the British army from North America; he could not bear the idea of stooping to ignoble guerrilla tactics. Washington’s favorite play, which he would later have performed at Valley Forge, was Joseph Addison’s Cato, in which the proud Roman Republican politician chooses suicide over submission to Caesar. Like Cato, Washington would defeat the British in New York City, or die trying.
On August 29, the British army struck, smashing the colonials on Brooklyn Heights in an afternoon; the survivors fled during the night, through rain and fog, with Washington taking the last boat to Manhattan. The colonial Army’s council of war then voted ten to three in favor of Greene’s recommendation to evacuate their remaining forces from southern Manhattan before the British could crush them against the East River. Washington refused, preferring an honorable death on the battlefield to an ignominious withdrawal: “And if the men stand by me (which by the by I despair of), I am resolved not to be forced from this ground while I have life”, he wrote to a friend.British troops next struck the now demoralized American militia and routed them again; Washington’s aides had to drag him from the battlefield to avoid capture. Only a sluggish British pursuit allowed Washington and the remnants of his army, down from 20,000 to fewer than 3,000, to flee to New Jersey. The debacle in New York forced Washington finally to put aside his fierce sense of honor and adopt a strategy of protracted guerrilla warfare for the remainder of the campaign. His growing sense of statesmanship and realism was reflected in a key decision made a year later: When the French entered the war, spurred on by General Horatio Gates’ victory at Saratoga in September 1777, Washington turned aside the popular proposal of encouraging them to drive the British from Canada. He explained his views to Henry Laurens, president of the Continental Congress: Men are very apt to run into extremes; hatred to England may carry some into excessive Confidence in France; especially when motives of gratitude are thrown into the scale. Men of this description would be unwilling to suppose France capable of acting so ungenerous a part [by violating its treaty obligations and remaining in Canada permanently]. I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favorable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesmen or politician will venture to depart from it.
Washington’s decision not to seek French intervention in Canada required genuine fortitude, since he must have been tempted to divert the British, then in the process of taking Philadelphia. Washington’s protracted guerrilla war strategy eventually paid off. While conceding Philadelphia to the British in late 1777, the British military evacuated it the following year. When they did, Washington attacked only the rear of their retreating army, at Monmouth Court House in New Jersey, as they returned to New York City. While he sent Greene to thwart Cornwallis’ attempt to stir up loyalist sentiment in the Carolinas, he did not commit the entire army. And it was only after France offered army and naval forces, not just arms, that Washington marched nearly all the colonial army from the New York City area to Yorktown for his first (and only) victory over a major British force. Under the peace treaty, the main British army withdrew from New York City having never suffered a single defeat. Yet they lost the war because Washington, having conquered his own pride, followed Fabius’ strategy of prudence rather than Cato’s vainglorious bluster. As President, Washington displayed the lucid realism about geopolitics that he had developed as Commander-in-Chief. He understood that America’s thin margin of survival called for a policy of prudence, and so he rejected the arguments of idealists, led by Thomas Jefferson, that America should base its foreign policy on an alliance with other republican governments—on the dream of an “empire of liberty”, as Jefferson called it, starting with an alliance with the French Republic. In Washington’s view, republics were no more intrinsically peaceful than monarchies, so when war broke out between France and Britain in 1793 he declared neutrality despite popular sentiment for supporting France. Washington then faced the most momentous decision of his presidency, as Britain began to confiscate goods on U.S. ships intended for France. The Washington of the early Revolutionary War period might have chosen a war of principle over an accommodation with London. Yet President Washington, believing that a weak United States had to avoid war until it had built up its domestic cohesiveness and military strength, sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty to ensure peace. That agreement included an implicit acceptance of the British blockade of France, for Washington reasoned unsentimentally that British trade would help the United States more, and its military could hurt America more, than republican France could do either. Knowing that Jay’s treaty would be unpopular, Washington tried to keep its terms secret until after Senate approval. Its provisions were leaked, however, and caused an uproar. Mobs demanding support for America’s revolutionary ideals and alliance with France surrounded Washington’s home in Philadelphia; one zealot struck Alexander Hamilton with a rock as he defended the treaty in New York City. Jay later said that the entire eastern seaboard was illuminated by protestors burning him in effigy. The Treaty passed by a single vote in the Senate only because of commercial interests and Washington’s prestige. A furious Jefferson lambasted him in a letter to Madison, quoting from the President’s favorite play, Cato: “A curse on his virtues, they’ve undone his country.” Now unmoved by theatrics, Thomas Jefferson’s or Joseph Addison’s, Washington defended the treaty in his Farewell Address and warned against the illusion that American exceptionalism would inaugurate a new era of republican virtue in international relations: “There can be no greater error than to expect, or calculate upon real favors from Nation to Nation. ’Tis an illusion that experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.” The Address embodied the political realism of the 18th century—cool, cerebral and cold-blooded. Washington’s most frequently used noun, “interest”, was intoned five times; phrases relating to international commerce were used three times; the only word pertaining to ideals (justice) but once. Washington, who died in 1799, lived long enough to see himself vindicated as republican France turned against the United States during the Adams Administration. Washington’s emphasis on interests does not mean that he was blind to moral considerations. For example, his first Administration sought assiduously to protect Indians from the waves of European-American settlers by seeking to promote large, fertile sanctuaries that would be off limits to settlers: “Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the Soil. . . . To dispossess them . . . would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of the nation.” When forced to send the army to defend settlers in the Ohio Valley, he lamented that the Indians “have no press thro’ which their grievances are related” to balance the European-American newspapers. Washington’s movement from untethered pride to mature realism began a common pattern in American politics. The American political system still tends to produce presidents whose modest military and foreign policy experience contributes to early misjudgments: Lyndon Johnson’s overconfidence about Vietnam, Ronald Reagan’s sentimentality over U.S. hostages and illusions about Iranian “moderates”, Bill Clinton’s clumsy tentativeness in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, George Bush’s hubris in Iraq. The pride that drove Washington initially to seek highly improbable victories over the entire British army still can surface in public declarations, such as Douglas MacArthur’s “there is no substitute for victory” or President Bush’s “you are either with us or against us.” Such pronouncements may be emotionally satisfying, but they draw unrealistic and too often counterproductive lines in the sand. As they gain experience, however, U.S. presidents tend to recover, particularly if they jettison their more ideological advisors, as Washington subtly did with Jefferson and as President Bush has done in his second term. Unfortunately, while U.S. presidents are usually more accomplished in foreign policy during their second terms, their influence suffers from an inevitably accelerating lame-duck status, a condition of which we are reminded by Washington’s refusal to run for a third term. The sin of pride inheres not only in individual men. The national pride inherent in American foreign policy exceptionalism often leads to overly ambitious foreign policy goals, even when temperamentally prudent leaders stand at the helm. Surely this has been the case with the present Administration’s hopes for alliance with yet unformed democracies in the Arab world. As Washington implied in his Farewell Address about Jefferson’s vision of a republican alliance of ideals, a foreign policy based on wishful thinking involves illusions “that experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.” The national security realism that Washington developed as Commander-in-Chief and exemplified as President still points the way toward a wisdom born of prudence and patience. Yes, our nation’s capital still has much to learn from its namesake. Even if the Iraq war turns out in the long run to be fairly described as a success, a prospect around which much doubt reasonably remains, we may wish nonetheless to subject our persistent illusions to the cure of experience. It will do us much good.