The revolution proved to be as much a social revolution as a military one. A primary precept of the revolution was that all men are created equal. Americans were tired of dealing with aristocrats who were born on third base but thought they hit a triple. And they were even more tired of being taxed by them.
There were few means in which a person could climb the social ladder in the late 18th century. But the influence of the enlightenment provided a few additional ways to succeed in a world accustomed to granting power only to men of high birth. These were military glory, literary esteem, scientific recognition, and wealth by commerce.
In this series we will discuss those founders who rose to prominence through the military. Marshall glory has long been a means for men born in lower classes to move up in social status. Napoleon said it best: “Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever.”
As a provincial British officer, an ambitious young Washington led an expedition that ended with a handful of scalped Frenchmen and the world’s first global war. Events during the French Indian war (or the Seven Years War as the Europeans called it) did not fare much better. Washington was directly involved in the loss off fort Necessity and an unfortunate participant in the Braddock expedition disaster. But Americans hungered for a war hero they could call their own, and Washington behaved honorably enough during these events to avoid any lasting political and military shame.
As the first Continental congress struggled to decide who was going to take control of the unwieldy militia mob that surrounded Boston at the beginning of the Revolutionary War, a distinguished Washington sat in full dress at the proceedings. No one in that first Continental Congress could point to another man with the appropriate experience to head up militia against the British. Standing at over six feet tall, Washington’s distinguished demeanor and imposing presence surly looked the part. John Adams (so he claims) proposed that Washington should fill the role of General of the Continental Army.
As the war progressed, the British famously refused to recognize Washington’s rank. But by the end of the war, they grudgingly recognized him as General Washinton.
It is a fortunate thing when one beats the British. You don’t lose rank. Ask Napoleon. A man recognized throughout the world as the Emperor of France was addressed (much to his irritation) as ‘General Bonaparte’ as he spent the remaining years of his life in exile on the remote island of Elba. One could only imagine Washington’s fate if he had failed against the British. The American general and future President would of met the hangman’s noose as a Major.
Next up, the fascinating rise of Alexander Hamilton…