Sunday, March 28, 2021

ARP194 Battle of Ushant

After Britain and France went to war in the spring of 1778, America became a sideshow to the main event.  Britain and France had been traditional enemies for centuries.  Part of it was the whole Catholic-Protestant rift that had divided Europe.  Part of it was conflicting claims over each other’s countries.  King George III still held the title of King of France, a claim that dated back more than 400 years.  Although the British Channel kept the two kingdoms separated, there was a continuing rivalry between the two countries that simply would not end.

Battle of Ushant
In the prior decades most of the fighting had been fought over colonies around the world.  Britain and France traded colonies in wars back and forth. North America was only one pawn in that larger game of chess.  

In the hundred years prior to this war, Britain and France had faced off in at least five major wars, totaling 39 years of fighting. These were a continuation of centuries more fighting between the two kingdoms.

In the Seven Years War, the British Navy had dominated the French at sea.  That was a big reason why France lost North America.  In the intervening years, France focused on rebuilding her navy to compete with the British.  France, which had three times the population of Britain, thought that Britain could fall if France could crush its navy.  

The first major naval engagement took place in the English Channel.  The fight took place about 100 miles west of the island of Ushant.  That battle still gets its name from the island because calling it a battle out in the middle of the ocean doesn’t have the same ring to it.

The two fleets were pretty evenly divided, each having about 30 ships of the line plus some smaller vessels.  The battle was not particularly decisive, but it does give me the opportunity to talk about the two navies and the role they played in Britain and France.  To help with that, I want to give a little background on the two flee commanders who fought the battle of Ushant: Admiral Augustus Keppel, and Louis Guillouet, the comte d'Orvilliers.

Admiral Keppel

In 1778, the 53 year old Admiral Keppel was a highly experienced officer with over four decades at sea.  His grandfather had immigrated to Britain from the Netherlands as a top aide to William of Orange. When William and Mary took the throne in Britain, Keppel continued his service to the new king and received appointment as the First Earl of Albemarle.  

Augustus Keppel
The Second Earl of Albemarle, Admiral Keppel’s father, continued to serve the crown as a British diplomat and was a friend of King George II.  The earl commanded British forces at Culloden, putting down the Jacobite rebellion in Scotland. After Culloden, he served as a military commander in Scotland, putting the area under tight military control and effectively destroying the highlander leadership that had ruled Scotland. He also served as governor of Virginia, although he never bothered to visit the colony.  

The earl married Lady Anne Lennox who would become Admiral Keppel’s mother.  She was the daughter of the First Earl of Richmond, who was in turn the illegitimate son of King Charles II.  So despite his family only having arrived in Britain two generations earlier, Keppel was tied to some of the most important families in Britain.

Keppel, however, would not inherit his father’s title.  That would go to his older brother George Keppel, who fought in the Seven Years War and eventually became a general.  His brother would die relatively young, but not before bearing a son, William, to take the family title.

Augustus Keppel went to sea in 1735, when he was only nine or ten years old.  He served on a variety of ships as he grew to adulthood.  His early adventures as an ensign included service in the Mediterranean under Commodore George Clinton, the father of future General Sir Henry Clinton.  He also participated in a cruise around the world, during which he became an acting lieutenant at age sixteen.  

Just over two years later, as the War of Austrian Succession began, Keppel, at age nineteen became captain of his first ship.  Keppel continued to do well as a commander. By the end of the war, he was commodore of a small fleet.

In 1754, Keppel, served briefly as Commander-in-Chief of North America and had the responsibility of delivering Major General Edward Braddock and his army to Virginia, where they would press British claims in the Ohio Valley.

Around this same time, Keppel’s father died, moving his brother George to the House of Lords.  Captain Keppel took the family’s seat in the House of Commons. But as the Seven Years War began, Keppel returned to the fleet.  In his second war, Keppel once again performed with distinction, leading the line of battle against the French along with Captain Richard Howe at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759.

Later he would command the Jamaica station with a fleet of ships, and would oversee the return of Cuba to the Spanish at the end of the war.

Following the end of the war, Keppel returned to London where he received appointments as Lord of the King’s Bedchamber, and as a Lord of the Admiralty.  He retained his seat in Parliament, although he did not speak much unless the issue involved naval matters.

Keppel did line up politically, however, with the Whigs, who opposed the administration’s policies in North America.  His political views resulted in his losing most of his political appointments, and finding himself without any naval command when the American Revolution began.  In January of 1778, with the war with France imminent, the crown, once again, needed his skills as a naval commander.  He received appointment as admiral and took command of a fleet at Portsmouth. There, he had to rush to repair ships and assemble a crew to face the new French threat.  His fleet put out to sea, in search of French fleets.

Comte d'Orvilliers

The fleet that he would find was commanded by Louis Guillouet, the comte d'Orvilliers.  The Comte’s came from a noble French family.  His father served as Governor of French Guiana, where he grew up.  At the time the South American outpost was tiny, with only a few hundred colonists and a few thousand slaves.  It had changed hands several times between the French, the British, and the Dutch. 

comte d'Orvilliers
As a young teenager, d’Orvilliers joined the militia.  At age eighteen, he opted to join the navy and go to sea.  The young officer served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession and visited various parts of the French Empire, including time in the Antilles and in Canada.  By the beginning of the Seven Years War, he had captained several ships and had commanded several small fleets.

Because d’Orvilliers did not have family or other close connections at Versailles, his move up the ranks was rather slow.  Even so, he married the daughter of his fleet commander and began to move up in rank.  In 1757, his fleet traveled to Louisbourg to help end the British siege there.  

Despite the weaknesses of the French Navy in the Seven Years War, d’Orvilliers came out with his reputation intact.  He became a Commander in the order of St. Louis and had become a key leader in France’s naval elite.  He was, by this time, getting up in years though.  In 1778, d’Orvilliers was 68 years old, but commanded a fleet of ships protecting the French coast.

Battle of Ushant

On July 8, 1778 Vice Admiral comte d’Orvilliers left Brest, on the coast of France.  His fleet of thirty-two ships of the line and nine frigates had sailed into the Atlantic in hopes of disrupting trade between Britain and its colonies. 

At the same time, British Admiral Keppel had been tasked with finding and destroying the French fleet in order to keep Britain’s trade routes open.  Keppel originally left Portsmouth in June with a handful of ships in search of the enemy.  While at sea, he was able to stop a ship that told him the French had a fleet of thirty two ships of the line at Brest, more than double what Keppel expected.  He turned around and went back to Portsmouth for reinforcements.  

Britain, at this time, had over-extended its navy.  Lord Sandwich had assured Parliament that they had dozens of ships of the line ready to go.  Keppel had found only six ready for service when he took command at Portsmouth in May. 

Keppel set out again on July 9, the day after d’Orvilliers had set sale.  Keppel had collected a fleet of twenty-four ships of the line.  A few days later, six more ships joined his fleet, already at sea.  After two weeks at sea the two fleets caught sight of each other about 100 miles west of Ushant. The French expected a much smaller fleet.  Even though the two fleets were about equal in size, the French began evasive maneuvers.

Two of the French ships managed to sail back to Brest before the British got between the fleet and the French coast.  For the next few days, both fleets sailed southwest, with the French trying to keep the British at a distance. 

On the morning of July 27, the winds shifted and the fleets were only a few miles apart.  British second in command, Admiral John Campbell, ordered a contingent of the fleet under third in command, Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, to sail toward the French Fleet.  Palliser, who was a Lord of the Admiralty, had not been given notice of these orders and took offense when he found out another Admiral had ordered part of his fleet into battle.

British Line at Ushant
Ships on both sides had trouble getting into position.  Soon shifting winds and a fog that limited visibility made the lines a complete mess.  For those unfamiliar, a ship of the line gets its name from the fact that the traditional naval formation at the time was for ships to form a line which would pass by enemy ships.  As they sailed past, gunners would fire broadsides from the side of the ship facing the enemy.  The point of sailing in a line was to inflict maximum fire power on the enemy ship as each ship in the line sailed past.  The goal was to fire on your enemy while minimizing the exposure to enemy fire.  Good formations were critical to success.

So, as I said, the formations for both sides were a mess.  But by the time the fog cleared enough to see the enemy, they were practically on top of each other.  A firefight raged for about two hours.  Palliser’s ships took the brunt of the French fire, while Keppel’s flagship the Victory went after the French flagship.

As the ships jockeyed for position, d’Orvilliers ordered an attack on the five most damaged British ships.  The French captains, however, were slow to respond and the British realized what they were trying to do.  Keppel repositioned his ships to protect the damaged ships and continue the battle.  Later in the battle Keppel individually signaled ships under Palliser’s command and ordered them to join his lines, thus once again cutting Palliser out of the chain of command.

Eventually darkness fell.  Keppel spent the night working on repairs, and keeping an eye on the French fleet nearby.  At dawn the following day, the British realized that the lights from the French ships came from only three ships.  The rest of the French fleet had sailed away that night and were making their way into Brest.  Keppel figured he could at least capture the three damaged ships left behind, but then discovered those ships were in relatively good condition.  They were three of the fastest French ships and quickly escaped the pursuing British.  

Fighting from the previous day resulted in about 400 British dead and 800 wounded. No ships had sunk, but most had to limp back to Portsmouth for repairs.  The French reported 126 killed and just over 400 wounded.  All of their ships also managed to return to port for repairs.  By most accounts, the battle was considered a draw.


Following the return of the French fleet to Brest, d’Orvilliers permitted one of his officers, the duc de Chartres to deliver news of the battle to Paris and Versailles.  The duc was a distant cousin of the King.  He arrived early in the morning and requested that the King be awoken so that he could announce the victory.  Great celebration of the French victory at sea swept across Paris.  

duc de Chartres,

Later, once d’Orvilliers’ official reports arrived, French officials not only learned that the battle was, at best, indecisive, but that d’Orvilliers was critical of the duc de Chartres’ failure to obey orders to engage the enemy.  While his relation to the king protected him from court martial, the event effectively marked the end of Chartres’ military career.  

Two captains from the fleet who had fled back to Brest days before the rest of the fleet fought the battle, faced a court of Inquiry. Captain Rochechouart came from a powerful French family and was cleared of all charges.  Captain Trémigon was admonished but continued to serve.  He would go on to command a much larger ship and would be killed in battle later in the war.

If the reaction to the battle in France was a confused mess, the reaction to the battle in London became a much larger confused mess.  Keppel was unhappy with the performance of Palliser.  But since Admiral Palliser was a Lord of the Admiralty and a favorite Lord Sandwich, Keppel decided to be political about the matter and praised Palliser in his reports to the Admiralty.  He thought that a critical report would only divide the ranks at a time when everyone should be united in the war effort.

At the same time though, Keppel began badmouthing Palliser’s performance to his Whig friends around London. Keppel and Pallisser were both members of Parliament who sat on opposing political factions, but had been on good terms personally.

In October, Palliser heard the rumors circulating that Keppel was critical of Palliser’s performance.  A Whig newspaper had published articles which vaguely accused Palliser of cowardice or intentionally sabotaging the battle for political reasons. Palliser confronted Keppel and demanded he sign a document praising his contact at Ushant. Keppel, of course, refused.

Hugh Palliser
In response, Palliser published his own version of events in Tory newspapers.  His account stated that Keppel’s actions in the battle were worthy of censure.

The issue blew up in Parliament, creating greater divisions between the political factions.  The Earl of Bristol in the House of Lords called on the Earl of Sandwich to conduct an inquiry into the charges.  Sandwich hoped the whole thing would blow over.  He argued that Ushant was pretty much a British victory and that leaders should not be squabbling with each other.  He also got Keppel to keep his mouth shut, saying no more than that he was content with the course and the result of the battle, although he did say he would not serve with Palliser again.

Palliser would not let the matter go.  He said he had nothing to fear from a court of inquiry and that he had obeyed all of Keppel’s commands that day.  That was too much for Keppel, who then made clear that Palliser had refused to respond to his flag to join the fleet after it had been flying for five hours.

With that, Palliser got approval from Sandwich to bring charges against Keppel.  The charges accused Keppel of failing to marshal his fleet, fighting in an un-officer like manner, making scandalous haste in quitting, making sail away from the enemy, giving them an opportunity to rally, and presenting the appearance of flight disgraceful to the British flag. 

These charges were reminiscent of charges brought twenty years earlier against Admiral John Byng.  In that instance, Byng had fought a half hearted battle against the French and Minorca before retreating back to Granada.  Keppel had sat on the court martial that had found Admiral Byng guilty and sent him to the firing squad.  Since Byng had been a Tory and Keppel was a Whig, some saw this as a time for political payback.  Now Keppel was literally fighting for his life.

Most Whigs saw the trial a despicable political attack.  Some naval officers took leave and refused to fight while the trial proceeded.  In January 1779, the navy conducted its inquiry against Admiral Keppel. Most of the ship captains who participated in the battle served as witnesses at trial and mostly backed Keppel.  The court exonerated Keppel and generally pointed the finger at Palliser for his failures that day.

Adm. Keppel Pub Sign
The acquittal of Keppel led to celebrations in the streets of Portsmouth.  In London the celebrations turned violent as a mob used it to highlight their unhappiness with the ministry.  A mob broke the windows at Lord North’s residence.  They attacked other Tory homes and specifically broke into Palliser’s house in the Pall Mall neighborhood, removing his furniture to start a bonfire in St. James Square. They also burned Palliser in effigy on Tower Hill and tore down the gates of the Admiralty,  All over England, pubs painted portraits of Admiral Keppel on their signs as a symbol of opposition to government policy, and support of the Whigs.

Sandwich persuaded Palliser to resign his government offices and his seat in Parliament.  But by this time the Whigs were smelling blood.  They condemned the Admiralty for failing to provide Keppel with proper intelligence and support before the battle, then unfairly blaming him for a less than complete victory.  The house also narrowly voted down a motion to kick Palliser out of the navy.  The King even suggested to Lord North that he consider replacing Sandwich with Admiral Howe, who had returned from America. North demurred and stood by his First Lord of the Admiralty.

In April, 1779 the navy bowed to pressure and court martialed Palliser.  Whigs accused the Admiralty of stacking the deck in favor of Palliser by sending out to sea all the officers who were against Pallier and putting only his friends on the court martial.  Keppel, though, also wanted the matter to go away.  He refused to prosecute the case against Palliser and only appeared as a reluctant witness.  The court martial became more of a court of inquiry that, in the end, exonerated Palliser with only a few minor errors in judgment.

The Keppel affair revealed growing political cracks in the British government that only got worse over time.  It also created divisions among naval officers that left scars for a generation.  For a relatively indeterminate naval battle that did not sink a single ship, the Battle of Ushant would have political ramifications that would last for years.

Next week: we turn to another court martial, this one in America as Charles Lee must answer for his behavior at Monmouth.

- - -

Next Episode 195 Court Martials of Lee, St. Clair, & Schuyler 

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Further Reading


Hiscocks, Richard, The Battle of Ushant – 27 July 1778 – and the Political Aftermath, 2016:

Hon. Augustus Keppel 1st Viscount:

The indecisive Battle of Ushant 1778 – and its farcical aftermath, the guillotine and a “Citizen King”

Chaline, Olivier. “Admiral Louis Guillouet, Comte d’Orvilliers (1710–92): A Style of Command in the Age of the American War.” Naval Leadership in the Atlantic World: The Age of Reform and Revolution, 1700–1850, edited by Richard Harding and Agustín Guimerá, University of Westminster Press, London, 2017, pp. 73–84. JSTOR,

Pritchard, James. “French Strategy and the American Revolution: A Reappraisal.” Naval War College Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 1994, pp. 83–108. JSTOR,

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

[Anonymous] The anti-palliseriad, or, Britain's triumphs over France: dedicated to the Honorable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the British fleet, London : Printed for J. Bew, 1779. 

The Trial of the Honourable Augustus Keppel, Admiral of the Blue Squadron: At a Court Martial, Londone: Printed by J. Wilkes, Breadhower, and Peadle 1770. 

Blanchard, W. Trial Of The Augustus Keppel, London, J. Almon, 1779. 

Hunt, Robert M. The Life of Sir Hugh Palliser, London: Chapman and Hall, 1844. 

Keppel, Thomas Robert The Life of Augustus, viscount Keppel, Admiral of the White, and first lord of the admiralty in 1782-3, London: H. Colburn, 1842. 

Palliser, Hugh The Defence of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser Bart: at the court-martial lately held upon him, with the court's sentence, London: Printed for T. Cadell in the Strand, 1779. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

O'Shaughnessy Andrew Jackson The Men Who Lost America, Yale Univ. Press, 2013. 

Syrett, David The Royal Navy in European Waters During the American Revolutionary War, Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1998 (book recommendation of the week). 

Thomas, Peter D.G. Lord North. Allen Lane, 1976. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

ARP193 Deane Hearings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that Silas Deane returned to America with the French fleet that arrived in July 1778.  Congress had recalled him, sending a letter in December 1777 to report on the affairs in Europe.  Deane had received the letter in March, then took a few weeks to wrap up his affairs and plan his return to Philadelphia.

Deane in France

By the time he returned, Deane had spent about two years in France.  Congress requested that he go there to serve as an advocate before the French Court in March, 1776.  The inexperienced merchant from Connecticut took up the task without knowing a word of French or even having any personal contacts in France  Despite these limitations, Deane had managed to make personal contact with key leaders at Versailles and to begin a partnership with Pierre Beaumarchais to begin sending arms and supplies back to America.  He accomplished all this despite being on his own in France for nearly a year.  

Silas Deane

At the end of 1776, Congress appointed Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee to work with Deane in France.  Together, the Commissioners had not only sent shiploads of arms and supplies, dozens of French officers, but also managed to finalize two treaties with France and bring their new ally into the war with Britain.  Deane’s mission had been a success and any return home should have been in triumph.

That, however, was not the case.  Almost since Deane’s arrival in Europe, Arthur Lee waged a campaign to attack Deane’s character and behavior in the hopes of having him recalled. Arthur Lee had been living in London when the war began.  He was a member of the powerful Lee family of Virginia, with two brothers sitting in the Continental Congress.  His legal practice in London helped to establish him as a colonial agent.  

Lee had attempted to work with Pierre Beaumarchais to get French military supplies to America after the war began.  But Beaumarchais ended up forming a partnership with Deane to further those ends.  That seems to have been the origin of Lee’s hostility toward Deane. Lee began a covert letter-writing campaign to powerful people in America, asserting that Deane was defrauding Congress by demanding payment for aid that the government of France intended to be given free of charge.  This was not the case. France did provide several generous loans to get the project started.  However, French officials expected the assistance program to become self-sustaining as America paid back those loans with the delivery of tobacco.

All of these deals were secret, of course. Congress only got information on them from Deane. Lee, and Franklin.  Since the commissioners were sending back Contradictory reports, Congress wasn't sure who to believe.  Congress, always desperate for cash, was receptive to accusations that one of its agents was unjustly enriching himself on these secret agreements.  

Deane Loses Allies

Deane also lacked political allies in Congress.  Deane had been a member of the Continental Congress before his appointment.  At the time of his appointment, the members of the Secret Committee who entrusted him with the mission to France were:  Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Johnson, John Jay, and Robert Morris.

Franklin in Paris 

Franklin, of course, had left Congress to serve alongside Deane in France.  Franklin still supported Deane, but was no longer in Congress to be his advocate there.

John Dickinson famously left Congress shortly after passage of the Declaration of Independence.  He took a commission in the army, but his opposition to independence in Congress and his expressed doubts about the war effort had damaged his reputation.  By 1778 he was living as a private citizen in Delaware.

Benjamin Harrison had left Congress shortly after passage of the proposed Articles of Confederation.  Harrison had opposed equal representation, which left a large state like Virginia greatly under-represented.  He had also opposed General Washington over the appointment of Lafayette to a command position.  He had engendered the anger of many radicals by supporting the rights of Quakers to avoid compulsory military service.  As a result of all this, he had resigned his seat and returned to Virginia.

Thomas Johnson had left Congress and was by this time Governor of Maryland.  John Jay had left to become Chief Justice of the New York Supreme Court.

The only member of the committee that supported Deane when he departed for France, who was still in Congress, was Robert Morris.  Even Morris had been on a leave of absence at the time Congress recalled Deane. However, he had returned in May 1778.  But Morris was no ally of Deane.

Morris had secured the appointment of his half-brother Thomas Morris as an American agent in France. Thomas was supposed to deal with prize ships that were captured, and other financial matters.  Unfortunately, Thomas did not share his brother’s business acumen or attention to duty.  Thomas Morris spent most of his time in France drinking and partying.  Deane had reported this behavior to Congress.  While Congress was still trying to sort out this mess, Thomas Morris fell ill and died in January 1778 at the age of 26.

Robert Morris took great offense, in part not believing the accusations that Deane levied against his brother, and also that Deane had made the issue public to Congress rather than writing to Morris privately.  The result was that Morris was hostile to Deane and Franklin at this time.

Arthur Lee had levied charges against both Deane and Franklin. But Franklin was seen as a success in France and still had many supporters in Congress.  Because of this, Deane, rather than Franklin, became the focus of concern. So, after two years abroad, and without any support among the delegates.  Congress recalled Deane to answer questions about the accusations against him.

In its letter to Deane, however, Congress did not mention the charges of financial mismanagement and fraud.  Instead, Deane simply received a letter saying he was being recalled for consultation about the situation in Europe. Deane was savvy enough to realize this was more than just fact-finding, that Congress would not be recalling him unless they had reason to question his performance. However, he had no idea what the details of those questions would be.

France Supports Deane

Before he left France, Deane consulted with Franklin, with Beaumarchais, and with Vergennes about his recall and let everyone know that he was returning to Philadelphia. Franklin’s letter to Congress gives the best description of what Deane did or didn’t know about the situation.  Franklin gave Deane a letter dated March 31, 1778 to the President of Congress.  

My colleague, Mr. Deane, being recalled by Congress, and no reasons given that yet appeared here, it is apprehended to be the effect of some misrepresentations from an enemy or two at Paris and at Nantes. I have no doubt that he will be able clearly to justify himself; but having lived intimately with him more than fifteen months, the greatest part of the time in the same house, and a constant witness of his public conduct, I cannot avoid giving this testimony, though unasked, that I esteem him a faithful, active, and able minister, who to my knowledge has done in various ways great and important services to his country, whose interests I wish may always by every one in her employ be as much and as efficiently promoted.

Lafayette, Dekalb & Deane in Paris

At the same time, after discussing the matter with Deane, Beaumarchais wrote a blistering confidential memo for the French foreign ministry critical of Lee’s attacks on Deane.

By character and by ambition Mr. Arthur Lee was first jealous of Mr. Deane. He finished by becoming his enemy, which always happens to small minds, more occupied in supplanting their rivals than in surpassing them in merit.

The connections of Mr. Lee in England, and two brothers whom he has in Congress, have made him recently an important and dangerous man.

His plan has always been to prefer between France and England the power which would most surely bring him to fortune. England has some advantages for him. He has often explained himself on the subject in his libertine suppers. But to succeed, it was necessary to get rid of a colleague so formidable by his patriotism as Mr. Deane. This he has accomplished by causing him to be suspected in several points of view by Congress. 

Beaumarchais’ memo went on to outline Lee’s attacks on Deane’s appointment of French officers, and Lee’s accusation that the covert military aid was a gift from France, not a sale.  Beaumarchais concludes by noting: 

To-day Mr. Deane, loaded with grief, finds himself suddenly and harshly recalled. He is ordered to go to give an account of his conduct and to justify himself from many faults which they do not designate.

Also in support of Deane, Foreign Minister Vergennes sent a letter to Deane in late March attesting to France’s appreciation of his work as a diplomat.  In part, it read:

The king, desirous of giving you a personal testimony of his satisfaction with your conduct, has charged me to inform M. the president of Congress of it; this is the object of the letters which M. Gerard will deliver you for Mr. Hancock. He will also deliver you a box with the portrait of the king.

The box, which was a gift to Dean, had a portrait of the King, and was made of gold and encrusted with diamonds.  It was a show of gratitude and support for Deane’s service in France.  Further, the King of France directed that Deane be a guest aboard the French fleet that would sail to America, along with the new French Minister to America, Conrad Alexandre Gerard.

In the view of France and of Deane’s personal views, he was returning to America in success.  He had secured the French alliance, sent many successful officers and had been the source of much needed military aid sent over the previous year.

Arrival in Philadelphia

Upon his arrival in Philadelphia in July, Deane met with President Henry Laurens.  Laurens was cordial and congratulated Deane on his many successes.  Deane made clear he was eager to make his reports to Congress and return to France and his diplomatic work.

Congress, however, was in no hurry.  Deane sat in Philadelphia for over a month, waiting for an audience with Congress. He finally received orders to appear several times in mid-August.  Then again, nothing.  Finally on September 8, Deane wrote that he was growing impatient and that if Congress did not want to hear from him further, that he would like to return to France. Ten days later, a Congressional committee reported that Arthur Lee and Ralph Izard had accused Deane of financial mismanagement and misappropriation of public money.  Congress began calling witnesses, but did not call Deane.

Titus Hosmer
Shortly after that, Connecticut delegate Titus Hosmer, who had been in Congress for only a few months and who was returning home, informed Deane that he had overheard other delegates sought to destroy Deane.  Since they had no evidence, they did not want to bring specific charges against him.  Instead, they would simply drag out the matter and allow the cloud of accusation to hang over Deane’s head for as long as possible.

Again, Deane wrote to Congress, asking for the charges against him and to see the letters of his accusers so that he could respond. He said that after spending more than three months in Philadelphia, he needed to get back to France to manage his financial affairs there.  

Deane never got to see the letters containing accusations against him, but he did learn more generally of some of the charges.  Lee had accused Deane of giving offense to everyone he worked with in France.  There is no doubt that Deane offended Lee, but Deane argued that his success spoke for itself.

Deane noted that in 1777 he had shipped 30,000 small arms, a similar number of uniforms, over 250 pieces of brass artillery and numerous other supplies that were critical to the cause and which had been vital to opposing the Burgoyne campaign.  There were also all those letters of support from Franklin and various French officials which Deane had delivered to Congress.

Lee also made some minor accusations like that Deane had opened and read all of Lee’s correspondence, which Deane simply denied.  Lee accused Deane of leaving him out of negotiations, to which Deane responded that Lee was too querulous and that they did not always trust him with confidential matters under negotiation.

The more significant charge was that Congress had spent millions but that almost everything sent to America still had to be paid for. The obvious implication was that Deane had used that money for other purposes and that Congress will still have to repay all of those loans.

Deane could deny those charges generally, but all of his financial records were still in France.  He had no idea that he would be called to answer these specific charges and had left the financial records with his associates who were trying to continue these business dealings in France. Instead, Deane had to cool his heels in Philadelphia, living at his own expense, waiting for Congress to continue its investigation.

Arthur Lee
Meanwhile, back in France, Arthur Lee, having successfully removed Deane from Europe, then turned his attention toward Franklin.  Lee continued to write to Congress about how Deane was guilty of all sorts of financial crimes, that he had grown rich on embezzling government money and that his calls for a hearing were just a bluff.  Lee also wrote that Franklin was similarly guilty of wasting government funds to support a lavish lifestyle.

Congress was still receptive to Lee’s accusations.  At one point, they came within one vote of voting to recall Franklin from France as well.  Lee wanted to remove both of his fellow commissioners so that he could take control of the American delegation in France.

One of Deane’s greatest defenders was French minister Gerard.  Gerard was concerned about openly supporting one political faction against another in America.  After all, his job was to maintain good relations between France and America regardless of who was in charge in Philadelphia.  But Gerard did speak with delegates when he could, defending the motivations and actions of both Franklin and Deane.

In a letter to Vergennes, Gerard wrote: "The stories of Arthur Lee are but an absurd tissue of falsehoods and sarcasm, which can only compromise those who have the misfortune of being obliged to have anything to do with him."

Dispute Goes Public

Despite all this support, the Deane hearings dragged on.  By December, Deane had grown increasingly frustrated with Congress. He had left Europe in a hurry expecting to be gone for only a few months.  He had left many matters incomplete in France, and had even left his thirteen year old son there in the care of others.  After spending nine months waiting for Congress to decide anything about his case, he wrote a public letter outlining his situation, attacking Arthur Lee and Lee’s political allies, and which was highly generally critical of Congress.

This public revelation of the infighting between the American Commissioners and the internal disputes within Congress set off a political firestorm.  Virginia delegate Francis Lightfoot Lee responded in the press to defend his brother Arthur Lee.  This led to follow up articles by Deane.  Then, a couple of weeks later, Thomas Paine entered the fray.

Thomas Paine

Paine published a series of articles savaging Deane.  His first article primarily criticized Deane for making this whole matter public and revealing divisions among the leadership.  That, Paine, believed, damaged the war effort and the patriot cause generally.  Over the next few weeks and months, Paine published articles attacking Deane for his failure to bring his financial records with him and for what Paine seemed to believe were unsubstantiated attacks on Arthur and William Lee.  Paine strongly implied that Deane was corrupt, or at least hopelessly naïve in the way he managed affairs in Europe. 

Paine’s attacks largely reflected the views of a faction, possibly a majority of Congress who distrusted Deane and thought that his publicizing this dispute only made things worse.

Over the winter, as the articles raged back and forth, Deane remained in Philadelphia without Congress making any effort to continue its investigation or hold hearings.  In April, and again in May of 1779, more than a year after Congress first recalled him, Deane wrote to Congress to say that he planned to depart the city.  He wrote to the President of Congress that “it was the design of those who wished to sacrifice me to family interests to wear me out, by delays, and, without any direct charges, to ruin me in the opinion of my countrymen by insincere hints and innuendoes.”  Upon receiving the letter, President Laurens’ comment was only that “If Deane goes in defiance of Congress, it will be a confession.

Finally in August 1779, Congress discharged Deane from further attendance and requested that all the commissioners submit their accounts and vouchers for final settlement.  Congress reached no ruling on the charges against Deane or anything else. It simply announced that the investigation had ended.

Congress finally offered to pay for his costs for the more than a year that Deane had remained in Philadelphia, but the amount offered was so small, and to be paid in nearly worthless Continental paper dollars, that a disgusted Deane refused to accept the payment entirely.

Perhaps his one small victory was that Robert Morris once again supported Deane.  Morris, upon receiving the full information about his brother Thomas’ failures in Europe, accepted that Deane had only been trying to resolve a problem, not attack him politically.  Morris commented that Deane had rendered essential services for his country and that he had been “ill-used” by his enemies.  In a letter after everything had ended, Morris wrote, “I consider Deane to be a martyr in the cause of America” and that the attacks on him were “shameful.”  

Deane finally did return to France in 1780 where Franklin greeted him as a friend.  Deane returned, though, as a private citizen.  Having so many enemies in Congress, he would not receive another appointment to anything.  French officials also received him warmly in appreciation of his past service.  

Deane was also reunited with his son Jesse, by this time a young man of sixteen.  Deane was also heartened to learn that just weeks before his arrival in France that Arthur Lee had departed for America, to be called to account for his own activities while abroad.

Even with the matter behind him though, Deane would carry a resentment toward Congress for the rest of his life.  His experience also left him with serious doubts that the American cause would succeed when led by the conspiring politicians with whom he had interacted during his time in Philadelphia.

Next week, the French and British fleets have their first major encounters at the battle of Ushant.

- - -

Next Episode 194 Battle of Ushant 

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Further Reading


The Rise and Fall of Silas Deane, American Patriot:

Hoadley, Charles J. “Silas Deane.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 1, no. 1, 1877, pp. 96–100. JSTOR,

Abernethy, Thomas P. “Commercial Activities of Silas Deane in France.” The American Historical Review, vol. 39, no. 3, 1934, pp. 477–485. JSTOR,

Covart, Elizabeth “Silas Deane: Forgotten Patriot” Journal of the American Revolution, 2014:

The Affair of Silas Deane, Thomas Paine Historical Society:

Address of Silas Deane to the Free and Virtuous Citizens of America,

Parton, James The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin, Boston: James R. Osgood, 1864, (excerpt) Part 6, Chapter 3, Beginning of Arthur Lee’s Mischief:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Clark, George L. Silas Deane, New York: G.P. Putnam's sons, 1913. 

Deane, Silas The Deane Papers, Vol. 3, New York Historical Society, 1889. 

Ingraham, Edward D. Papers in Relation to the Case of Silas Deane, Philadelphia: Seventy-Six Society, 1855. 

Lee, William Reply of William Lee to the charges of Silas Deane, 1779, Brooklyn: Historical Printing Club, 1891.  

The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 1: Silas Deane’s Correspondence, Boston: Hale, 1829. 

Sparks, Jared The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution, Vol. 2: Arthur Lee’s Correspondence, Boston: Hale, 1829. 

Stillé, Charles J. Beaumarchais and the "Lost Million" A chapter of the secret history of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, Priv. print, 1887. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

James, Coy Hilton Silas Deane, Patriot or Traitor, Michigan State Univ. Press, 1975

Paul, Joel Richard Unlikely Allies: How a Merchant, a Playwright, and a Spy Saved the American Revolution, Riverhead, 2009. 

Van Vlack, Milton C. Silas Deane, Revolutionary War Diplomat and Politician, McFarland, 2013 (book recommendation of the week). 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

AR-SP08 David O. Stewart: George Washington

Hello, and thank you for joining this special edition of the American Revolution. I am joined today by author David O Stewart. Mr. Stewart is an attorney who worked at the US Supreme Court and later argued before the justices in various cases he also argued the Nixon impeachment case before the US Senate. No, not that Nixon. Federal Judge Walter Nixon was impeached in 1989.

Mr. Stewart is also a prolific author.  He’s written a number of historical fiction novels.  He's also written nonfiction about the Constitutional Convention, about Vice President Andrew Johnson's impeachment, about Vice President Aaron Burr’s Treason trial, and about the politics of James Madison.

Mr. Stewart was kind enough to join me to discuss his most recent book: George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father.  His book covers Washington the politician, as he progresses from a young militia officer, though years as a colonial legislator, to the Continental Congress, as Commander of the Continental Army, and finally as the President of the United States.

I spoke with Mr. Stewart via a remote call. 


Michael J. Troy (MJT) David Stewart, welcome to the American Revolution Podcast.

David O. Stewart (DOS): Well, thanks so much for having me.

MJT: We're here to talk about your new book, George Washington: The Political Rise of America's Founding Father, which came out just a couple of weeks ago if I'm correct, right?

DOS: Indeed, just in time for Washington's Birthday. 

MJT: I've got to say, there's probably maybe 1000 biographies about George Washington. What makes your standout?

DOS: Putting aside overall excellence, I do have a theme, which is to focus on his political life. I think it's been neglected, that he really was an extraordinarily effective political leader. And really, part of his magic was that people didn't think of him as a politician and still don't, when in fact, that's exactly what he was, and an extraordinarily successful one. So I wanted to unpack that and try to understand how he did it, and how he taught himself to do it. Because when I looked at his life, it turned out, he didn't start out as a gifted politician. He had to learn it.

MJT: I guess politics was really in Washington's tradition. I mean, his grandfather was in the House of Burgesses. His father was an elected Sheriff and his brother Lawrence was also in the Burgesses, right?

DOS: Yeah, you're exactly right. And his great-grandfather had been in the House of Burgesses and his other brother, Augustine also was in the House of Burgesses.  But none of them was particularly prominent, although Lawrence might well have been had he lived.  He died prematurely. He was a very ambitious young man and successful.  But, he had contracted tuberculosis and died in his early 30s.

MJT: As was common with a lot of politicians in the colonies. They were all very active in the state militia as well. Right?

DOS: Lawrence was. Virginia had very little militia tradition. And Lawrence had been engaged in actually a foreign expedition to South America to fight the Spanish. And George really imbibed that. Lawrence was 14 years older. He was a half-brother, sort of also half-father, because George's father dies when he's 11. [Lawrence] shows up, you know, with a uniform and a sword and George wanted to be a soldier right from that minute on.  His brother, as long as he lived, helped him in every way he could. 

MJT: George, I guess, got his start, well, he wanted to join the Navy. I think his mother wouldn't let him. Is that true?

Author: David Stewart
DOS: It's not clear he wanted to join. Lawrence was acting a surrogate father at the time. He and another surrogate father, Colonel William Fairfax, who was a next door neighbor.  The Fairfaxes were the richest people in Virginia, and they were good neighbors to have. They cooked up the scheme. Lawrence was a son in law of Colonel Fairfax. He had married at Fairfax.  The Washingtons all liked to marry well.  They cooked up this scheme to enlist George as a midshipman. 

They did not reckon on his mom, Mary Washington was a single mother at this point. I think everybody could see that George was a talented young man. He had the potential to be something. She didn't want to see him die at sea, which was not an uncommon outcome. You know, you could sort of see maybe some political skills of George coming from his mother. She just sort of slow rolled these two guys, who were very powerful men in their own right, much more powerful than she was.  She just kept dragging her feet and dragging her feet and they finally gave up, which was probably to George's advantage. 

MJT: Well, it seemed to work out well for him in the end.

DOS: Yeah, well, right. Things did turn out. But the British military establishment was built on patronage and rich patrons, and George didn't have any. 

MJT: You mentioned Lord Fairfax. The Fairfaxes were obviously a huge influence on George and his family generally. I guess they were the wealthiest family in Northern Virginia. And Lord Fairfax, I believe, was actually even a peer in Britain. And they seem to take  an interest in the Washingtons.  Obviously, as you mentioned, Lawrence married Lord Fairfax's daughter, Anne. And I believe George was good friends with Lord Fairfax's son, George William.

DOS: Yes, that's right. There was a pretty big age difference of seven years, but they became fast friends for really their whole lives. George's friendships are hard to trace, but I might well call George William Fairfax, his best friend.

MJT: When George first started out in a career, George Washington, he worked as a surveyor and I believe Lord Fairfax assisted him with that, and he ended up going out on some survey missions with George William Fairfax.

DOS: Yes, George Washington really had to go to work. His mother was a single mom with five kids and not enough assets to really live that well. His education was cut short. He never got to go to England the way his two older brothers had to get it really fine education. He went to work as a surveyor at 16 really self-taught.  But surveying, it turns out, wasn't all that precise an activity back then. There was a certain amount of shading and scamming, that went on in land deals. And the Fairfaxes, of course, since they owned so much of Northern Virginia, basically they own as much land as the state of New Hampshire occupies. They had plenty of need for surveyors, because they were selling their land or leasing it as best they could. So they could really give him a tremendous head start. And they did.

MJT: It seems like Washington spent a lot of his early years on the western frontier, both as a surveyor and later as a militia officer. He very conspicuously did not adopt, I guess what we call it frontiersman persona. He never took up drinking or hard language. He very much emulated the elite habits of the Fairfaxes and I guess that was one of his first very deliberate steps toward political advancement.

DOS: Yes, and I credit a lot of that, as you say to the Fairfaxes, but also to Lawrence, his older brother, who was his role model through his teens. And, you know, he was a very ambitious boy, and young man, and being a yahoo in buckskins was not the road to greatness, if you really wanted to be a member of the elite. He had trouble getting there because she didn't really have the assets for it. But that absolutely was his goal.

MJT: Yeah, his father was reasonably wealthy. And of course, most of his property got divided up among his sons with I guess, Lawrence and Austin, getting the lion's share of it. Washington, after a few years in serving, saw, I guess, militia or a commission in the officer corps of the Virginia army as a place for advancement, right?

DOS: Yes, everyone could see that the war with France was coming, which we call the French and Indian War. And he ended up very well placed. I kind of credit Colonel Fairfax for getting him well placed. He went on an expedition for the Royal Governor out in the west to present a demand to the French. It was really a diplomatic mission, which is amazing that a 21 year old was sent to do this. And he acquitted himself well. It gave him a terrific head start, beginning as a military officer and within a year, despite, frankly, not much success, he was the senior military officer in the colony. He was Colonel of the Virginia regiment.

MJT: He was relatively active in the early part of the French and Indian War. He of course, famously served under General Braddock, although that campaign did not go as well as hoped But he acquitted himself well there. Despite the loss overall, he came out of it with the respect of his fellow officers, I think, at least the ones who survived.

DOS: He was crazy brave and crazy lucky. The Braddock Battle of the Monongahela was a slaughter.  [Washington was] the tallest man on the battlefield, [and] on a horse.  He couldn't have been more conspicuous and didn't have a scratch on him. He came away from that with a better reputation than he had earned or deserved. I shouldn't say "earned." I mean, he was courageous beyond imagination. 

And then he was given command out in the woods, on the frontier to fight the Indians and the French. And that just turned out so badly for him. Virginia soldiers just were not the equal of Indian fighters. They just made too much noise and they didn't know the woods well enough. And I don't think he ever had a good day for three years out there. It was just always bad news. More settlers have been slaughtered and more were heading east to get out of the frontier. His soldiers deserted in droves, because the service was so dangerous and unpleasant. 

He ended up so unhappy that he really fouled his own nest and tried to jump the chain of command in ways that military people don't forgive.  He was disrespectful to his superiors, which nobody forgives. At the end of four years, he could tell he was not going to have a military career as things were constituted. And he walked away from it.

MJT: He served under General Forbes during the Forbes campaign. And the impression I got was he was really unhappy with General Forbes' strategy, because, well, he said it was mostly because it was gonna be so hard getting over the mountains, but I think a bigger part of it for him was they were building a road that was going to help Pennsylvania lay better claim to what became western Pennsylvania rather than allowing that land to become part of Virginia.

DOS: Yeah, it was political in part. Braddock had built a road basically through Virginia to attack what is now Pittsburgh - it was then mostly called the forks of the Ohio or then the French Fort Duquesne. Maybe partly [hoping to change British] luck, Forbes just didn't want to walk in Braddock's footsteps. [Matters for Braddock's army] had turned out so badly.  [So Forbes] went through Pennsylvania. Washington was just insufferable in arguing against it. He didn't have a bad case that it was a bad idea. But he had the real misfortune that Forbes ended up winning [by ignoring Washington's advice]. So, you have argued vociferously against a winning strategy. You're really on the low ground.

MJT: But as you say, after that he seemed to step away from military affairs. He was not an active part of the military for the final part of the French and Indian War, when they captured Quebec, I mean, pretty much when Fort Duquesne fell, that was the end of his military career in the French and Indian War. 

He picked a good time to get married, then, that's about the time he married Martha Custis. And seemed to settle into the career of a gentleman farmer at that point. Yeah, I guess he really didn't see the military as a future for him at that point. And he really focused more on, he acquired a whole bunch of lands, from his wife and also from Lawrence and family when they passed away. So is that really the career he saw for himself at that point, becoming a gentleman farmer / politician?

DOS: Yeah, I think there's a real inflection point after Fort Duquesne falls, where Washington knows that the military life is not going to work out. And he decides, okay, I'm going to take another road to prominence and success.  I don't mean to be cold blooded about it, but he's been lucky enough to inherit Mount Vernon, because everybody who had a better claim to it died. And he sets off in a remarkably single-minded effort to court and win the hand of Martha Dandridge Custis, who was one of the wealthiest widows in the colony. It was not her family's money, but she had married a very rich man who died. She was about Washington's age.  They were 26-27 at the time, and he basically spent two weekends visiting her and at the end of which they were engaged. We don't have records, but they must have known each other beforehand. It just seems impossible that he showed up cold, but we don't know the story. And they burned each other's letters. So we don't have that information.  That [marriage] was essential. He had inherited Mount Vernon, but he would not have had the assets to turn it into the sort of plantation and seat of his life that he intended, and that a Virginia gentlemen should have. And so Martha's assets really made that possible.

MJT:  So having established himself as a wealthy planter, he begins or furthers his political career by entering the House of Burgesses, about this time, right?

DOS: Yeah, as he's leaving the military service, and even before he does, he stands for election to the House of Burgesses from Frederick County, which is out on the frontier, around Winchester.  You can run wherever you own land, and he did own some land out there, which he bought from the Fairfaxes. So he had this exit strategy planned, and he enters the House shortly after his marriage. 

He's not the most diligent legislator for the first few years. He's busy with Mount Vernon trying to turn it into a paying operation. As you suggest he's avidly pursuing western lands that he thinks will be a wonderful investment, even if they turn out to be a terrible investment. That's 30 years from now.  He doesn't know that. And he is positioning himself and getting his life in order in a way that I think still happens when you get you're sort of ready to settle down and you're ready to start a family. Martha had two children with her first husband.  [George and Martha] never had children on their own. 

And his political engagement, you can really find, very gradually and carefully improving. He's not a natural in the legislature. He bungles a little bit. There's a wonderful episode where he tries to sponsor legislation to stop the running of pigs in Winchester.  You know, when pigs run through the town, it's very unpleasant.  They're destructive, and you know, they defecate wherever they want. It's no fun. And Washington couldn't get it adopted. You know, it was kind of baffling. I mean, who else cares?

MJT: Was there a big pro-pig lobby? 

DOS: From Frederick, yeah.  I mean, like the pigs had their own Burgesses. The legislation is taken over by another fellow, a  very smart lawyer named Edmund Pendleton, whose career would parallel Washington's.  Pendleton very cleverly retitled the legislation. It's no longer about pigs. It's about protecting the water quality. Because of course, if they're pooping everywhere, it's getting into the wells. It's a great example of branding or rebranding, and it sails through. I can just imagine Washington watching this and the light going on. Okay. That's how we get this done. And you can see him advancing, slowly but steadily, within the House, until the conflict Britain gets serious.  Then he becomes a very engaged legislator and political activist.

MJT: That's what I found interesting. He was, for lack of a better word, inoffensive as a legislature. He seemed to make a lot of friends and good relationships within the House of Burgesses. But you know, not particularly outspoken or somebody that was particularly noteworthy. I think you mentioned his dealings with the Robinson affair in your book a little bit, which was a huge scandal and highly divisive among the upper crusts of Virginia society.  He managed to, to weather that fairly well. 

DOS: He kept his head down. 

MJT: So it seems like he was becoming very politic about getting through these difficult situations. So for him to take such an active role in the Patriot cause against King George and against Parliament seems almost out of character from all the other things we see about him. 

DOS: You make a good point. And I see it, frankly, as idealism. He believed in the cause of liberty and self-government and thought the British were trying to deny it to him. There may have been a bit of a shadow of resentment of the way that British had treated him during the French and Indian War, that was a bit of a carryover. But there's no question that he very quickly stakes out what initially, I think, was probably an extreme position: that if we have to fight these people, we're going to fight them, which many other colonists were very slow to come to. And I think he had prepared the ground well for that.  First of all, he did have a military aura and image and tradition around him. And I think also, people understood that he meant what he said.  He had integrity and character, which was respected. So when he takes this position, you know, strength can be appealing. He was never flamboyant, you know, not a Patrick Henry speechmaker, but he did have a sort of adamant quality, determined quality, which I think served him extremely well in the run up to the Revolution.

MJT: Yeah, I was somewhat surprised that he really never played any role in Lord Dunmore's War, which was only a couple of years before independence. I would have thought if he styled himself as a military man that he would have played more of a role in that fight.

DOS: Yeah, you know, I give him credit for that. This is when the colonial Governor Lord Dunmore, heads off into the woods to spank some Indian tribes. And it's a complete irrelevance. It's a dumb thing for Lord Dunmore to have done. I think I give Washington full credit for recognizing that that's not the subject at hand. The subject at hand is between the colonies and Britain and you know, we'll deal with the Indians whenever we have to. And yeah, he just sat that one out completely.

MJT: Yeah, I guess maybe he saw it more as a political distraction from what he wanted to get to. How did Washington do politically in elections? And can you maybe talk about how elections work during the 18th Century?

DOS: Yeah, the House of Burgesses elections, some of these practices continued on. the governor would call the elections. They tended to be every three or four years. And the notice would go out to the county sheriff who would call the election; he had to call it within 30 days., And would usually do it at the county seat because people would come there on court day or market day. It was Viva Voce voting, which meant you had to say [your vote] out loud in front of everybody else in the community. It was accepted that it was very important, who was called on first to vote, and you wanted your voters to be called on first. And we do know that for his first couple of elections in Winchester that Washington always arranged for that to happen, not always in the most scrupulous manner. And I don't mean that he bribed anybody but he certainly did prevail to get influence over the sheriff.

MJT: He lobbied hard. Yeah.

DOS: And, you know, so the, out of the first 15 voters, half of them were related to Washington or Fairfaxes.  He did very well, and won convincingly. After his first two elections, he then switches to running in Fairfax County, which is where Mount Vernon is located and was much more convenient, and more prestigious.  It had the higher class of constituent there. He was largely unopposed there at the time. I think he was unopposed for at least one of the elections. So he had a lot of success in the colonial times and within the House of Burgesses. 

By the time you get to these serious confrontations with Britain in 1773, and 1774, he's a force. He's using Fairfax County as an interesting power base. It's an influential place filled with influential people and he becomes the first man of the county. Everything the county does - he is elected chairman whenever there's a committee to block imports. There's a set of resolutions called the Fairfax resolves, which get continent-wide attention, he's listed right at the very top [of the resolves] as the man presiding. He manages to place himself in the leadership role. He eclipses the men who had really dominated legislative proceedings, men like Patrick Henry or Edmund Pendleton, who were better, frankly, at legislating than he was. But he had the quality of leadership [that] people look to for the confrontation they felt was coming.

MJT: Yeah, I'm wondering how did all this impact his relationship with the Fairfaxes which we're still friends and patrons, but we're also loyalists.

DOS: It's a fascinating thing. And that's, that's a great question. The older generation had passed on except for Lord Fairfax, who basically ducked during the whole revolution.  He just lived quietly in Winchester, trying to sell his land and picked no fights at all. The Fairfaxes who were George Washington's generation, George William, another brother named Bryan, George William seems to have agreed with George Washington that the British were wrong. George William goes back to Britain and they have a lively correspondence. And Washington is completely candid with him that he thinks the British government is just being stupid, and alienating, actively alienating the colonists and blindly doing so. And there's a wonderful exchange of correspondence between Washington and the brother, the younger brother, Bryan Fairfax, who still lived in Virginia, because Bryan Fairfax doesn't really want there to be a war, doesn't want confrontation. And kind of, you know, keeps writing Washington saying, couldn't we just send another petition to the king? We don't actually need to pick a fight. And Washington just writes back these stern letters, you know, the time for petition is over. I'm not doing that again. So the Fairfaxes were very tied back to Britain. Their seat [is]next to Mount Vernon. They ended up losing [it].  For Washington, there was just no repairing the relationship with Britain and the Fairfaxes had to accept it. 

/ / 

MJT: As a leader of the patriot cause Washington is appointed to the First Continental Congress. And then again to the second, it doesn't seem like he spoke a lot at those congresses.

DOS: Yeah, it's an interesting thing that the first Continental Congress, and it's a lot of people from the different colonies who had never met each other.  So it was an awkward time for them to figure out how to deal with each other. And they're looking at cooperating and forming a sort of quasi-government in a way that had never happened. There are leaders there who take prominent positions, and Washington is not one of them. He seems to go to dinner a great deal. And he socializes a lot. He knows a lot of the people from other colonies already.  He's unusual in that regard.  He has gotten around more than the others have. And he builds relationships. And he's not on the key committees. 

He is always the tallest man in the room. He's the guy with some military experience. Not all of it good, but more than anybody else has. And he's content with that.  He describes himself later as having been a witness and an observer at the First Continental Congress. And when they come back for the second one, which is about eight months later, we're going to war. We've gotten Lexington and Concord. I mean, things are getting bloody.

MJT: The Second Continental Congress met, started a month after Lexington and Concord. Right?

DOS: Right. So it's conflict. Washington shows up wearing his militia uniform, which is the least subtle cue in history. He's clearly saying, you know, you can say, Well, he was just showing us patriotism, maybe. But it's hard not to see it as a sort of

MJT: Dressing for the job you want?

DOS: A job application, yeah. And he instantly becomes a significant player. They have a bunch of committees that they need.  They're short term committees, four or five days is all they get. But they have to deal with what are we going to deal with staffing forts in the colony of New York, then? How are we going to find ammunition? You know, where is the gunpowder? Lots of practical military issues. And you've got a bunch of lawyers there and merchants who don't have a clue how to answer these questions. And there's this big guy in a uniform. And so he ends up as the chair of one important committee after another, and it's clear that he's built relationships. He has established himself as knowing something about military matters, which, you know, the others are just agog at having to deal with. And he swiftly rises to a position of great stature.

MJT: What really surprised me though, is when Congress unanimously selects Washington to become commander in chief of the Continental Army, his response is more of I don't really think I'm qualified to do this. Do you think that was false modesty or politicking? Or do you think maybe he thought somebody else was going to be commander and he was going to be a major general in someone else's army?

DOS: I think he intended for himself to be the commander in chief, I don't have any doubt about that. I think he thought there were certain ways he was supposed to behave. And one of them was to say he was not equal to the job. And he may have felt that way. Frankly, it was a ridiculous job, to think that we were going to defeat the British Army. 

But I was struck, when studying the House of Burgesses, with the speeches that the colonial governors would always give, the royal governors. They would always start out saying, as unequal as I am to the difficult jobs thrust upon me, please indulge me and my bumbling ways. I'm paraphrasing, obviously. And what Washington says when he's chosen commander in chief sounds very similar. I think it was the style. I think it's what you did. If you were a gentleman, you said, I'm clearly in overmatched by this job. I'm flattered that you think I might make a go of it. And I'll do my best. And please overlook my mistakes, which is basically what he says. And he goes on to make a few. I think it was ritual modesty, I'm not sure I would call it false modesty. He did have a fair amount to be modest about. 

And it's important to keep in mind that the American talent pool for military leaders was shallow, his competitors were not compelling figures. [Also,] there was a political reason to choose him which he was a southerner. This was starting out as a New England war, it would be good to have a southerner engaged, particularly a Virginian. He had some experience, and it looked like he wanted to do it. And they didn't have anybody else who looked better.

MJT: I think from a military background, a lot of people looked at Charles Lee, but one of the big concerns of Congress was that they not have a new Cromwell, that they have somebody who is going to respect legislative authority and civilian rule of the government. And they saw Washington as that man.

DOS: I think you put your finger on a very important point, which was Lee was arrogant. And they could imagine Lee ignoring them. And Washington was modest, and made it very clear throughout his career with the Continental Army, that he would tell [Congress] what he thought they ought to do, and what they ought to know. But if they told him otherwise, those were his marching orders, and he would follow them. It was a wonderful model to set for our civilian-military relations ever since. And it was one he did adhere to.

MJT: As you point out very well, in your book, Washington did seem to grow into the job not only as a military leader, but as a politician understanding better as an older man than he did as a younger man how to best interact with people and get things done while retaining their respect. Obviously, as commander in chief, he went through quite a few difficult times, the period right before Crossing the Delaware and again with the Conway Cabal a year later. He did have some challenges to his leadership, and some people who really questioned whether he should be the commander in chief. How did Washington use his political skills in those ways?

DOS: I think a central understanding he formed was that Congress was the power. And he was the steward of the army. He had been given that as a responsibility and a duty. But the sovereignty of whatever the United States of America was, resided in Congress. And so he was always very solicitous. He would always reach out to them. He was very careful of his relations, to have an alliance with the powerful members of Congress. And as the war goes on, the quality of the members of Congress declines a bit. In the episode you mentioned, the Conway Cabal, and the troubles that they had at Valley Forge, which are at the same time, he really did deploy congressional influence in a critical way and a very deft way to preserve his own position and reinforce it, and also to improve the position of the army. So I was recently talking to a fellow who was career military man, and he said, Well, you know, show me any officer corps in any army and I'll show you some really good politicians that there's a lot of maneuvering that goes on. And you know, Washington had to deal with that. It was a bureaucracy that had to be managed.  He had to deal with state governors.  He had to deal with local officials and trying to get supplies for his army. That was probably 90% of his job. You know, it wasn't so much fighting the British. It was sort of keeping us organized and keeping our army together. And he was extraordinarily good at that. 

MJT: Yeah, I mean, that was his real strength. I mean, revolutions have a way of eating their young, either they devolve into chaos, or you end up with a dictator like Cromwell, or, in later years, Napoleon, somebody like that. Washington very easily could have fallen into that role. And he seemed to avoid it yet still successfully navigate the army to its eventual victory. Of course, at the very end of the war, he faced a couple of other challenges where his own soldiers wanted to, if not overthrow Congress, at least very seriously challenge them. And we ended up with what's called the Newburgh Conspiracy that he also puts down towards the end of the war.

DOS: It's a terrible moment, frankly, because he completely sympathizes with the officers who are so disgruntled because they haven't been paid. They've been treated very badly. And he thinks they're right. And Congress has not met its obligations. Now, Congress couldn't meet its obligations, I think they wanted to pay the officers, they just didn't have the money. So it was a no-win situation on all sides. But Washington certainly understood that if he had a mutiny on his hands. that was what was threatened, that the army would lose faith with the nation. 

You cannot have an army that turns on its own government. That's an armed mob. So he does manage, at a very dramatic meeting, to persuade them not to. It is a moment where I think he displays what he has learned over the previous 20 years and more. He's not capable of oratory. That's not who he is. And that's not what he's ever going to do. What he is capable of is touching people emotionally. And this is not how we think of Washington. We think of this big, tough guy who was brave and always knew what to do. And, you know, he didn't always know what to do. But he did know how to connect with people. And he gets in front of these officers who are really angry. And it's a bit of play acting, which, you know, I won't try to recreate because I couldn't do it as well as he does. But he demonstrates essentially, that he can't read something he's trying to read. And he reaches for his spectacles, which nobody has ever seen before in the army.  He's just gotten them and says you must forgive me, I have not only grown gray in your service, but also I am going blind. And suddenly the air goes out of the room. And they all remember their shared sacrifices, remember his sacrifices. He's been fighting this war for eight years. And he has shamed them, and they won't betray his trust. It's an extraordinary moment to turn mutineers around, not with high flung rhetoric, not with scolding. But with shared sacrifice.

MJT: The war ends and Washington very famously disbands the army and resigns his commission and returns home to Mount Vernon. At that point, he is really the hero of the nation, if not much of the world.  He's achieved more fame than any man could hope for, and still has enough of his fortune to live comfortably the rest of his life. I get the feeling that Washington was not particularly interested in the idea of ever becoming president, and forming the head of this new government under the Constitution.

DOS: I think that's fair. He leaves the army. And that's a real action. It's not a career move. He wants to go home. But it is a great career move because it persuades everybody that he can be trusted with power. He doesn't crave power, and he'll walk away from it. And in fact, watch him. He's walking away from it. And so it's kind of astonishing. And I don't think he really wanted to take power. Again, he had to be talked into it. And I think, again, it's [that] he's got a powerful sense of duty. He does still believe in the cause. And he thinks the country is headed into the ditch, that we're falling apart under the Articles of Confederation. The government can't really do anything. And the states are fighting with each other and we've got a terrible economic depression. And something's got to be done. 

He knows if he comes back to this constitutional convention that he's back in. It's almost like that scene from The Godfather [3] where Michael Corleone says, you know, just what I'm getting away, they reel me back in. You know, he's reeled back in. He's really got no way out once the Constitution is adopted. He's got to be the first president. And there's nobody else around who even begins to be a contender. He's elected unanimously. He understands it's an honor.  He understands, it's an opportunity But I think you're right that if he hadn't ever done it, he would have been fine.

MJT: I think it really was a sense of duty. The impression I get from the Constitutional Convention is that they never even probably would have had a president or at least not made the chief executive as powerful as it was, if they did not envision George Washington being that man who could be trusted with that level of power.

DOS: Several delegates observed that and with some asperity. They tended to take the view that article two of the Constitution is a little vague, which it is. Because everybody figured, well, Washington will be fine. And you know, there [were] going to be people after Washington if we were lucky. And, you know, maybe we should have thought a little harder, about how we confine their power.

MJT: Yeah, Washington does, obviously serve two terms. He's elected unanimously on both occasions. There is some division by the time he ends his second term.  We see the beginning of political parties starting to divide up. Washington, although he maintains his neutrality clearly seems to favor the Federalist side of things. Is that why he decided to hang it up at that point, that he didn't want to become part of the party divisions, or did he just think I'm too old for this time to go?

DOS: Very much, he was old. He wanted to go home.  He actually wanted to quit after the first term. And he had to be talked into staying and I think that was genuine. He really just wanted to go. And he may have been smart enough to recognize that actually, the second term wasn't going to be as good, and it wasn't. I don't know, the glow of the revolution [was dimming], of the new Constitution, of Washington's own stature -- After four years it all wears off a little.  

We've seen two term presidents.  Usually, the second term is not as good as the first term. We get a little sick of them. We get a little tired of them. And he is by the end of his second term, he's only got Federalists in his cabinet. And there is an opposition led by Jefferson and Madison, that is not represented in his cabinet. So he is seen as a partisan figure at that point, which he doesn't like. He doesn't want to be. So he can't see away, because he doesn't agree with those other guys. So he just, it's time to quit. And so I mean, he finishes his term, but he's delirious to leave.

MJT: Right. And he's almost dragged back into national politics again, after he leaves it as part of the quasi war with France. Although at that point, I think he really decides he's going to be a titular head and really pass off the power to others that he thinks are capable of doing the job in the next generation.

DOS: Yeah, you're exactly right. And he doesn't belong in the army. And he knows it physically, just doesn't want to do it. And he sets it up so Hamilton will be the guy with the actual power, which is a controversial play. Hamilton was a guy who had, there are a lot of people that didn't like him. But lucky for the nation, Adams was able to resolve matters with France, and it never came to blows. 

But it's a final episode that is not especially glorious. There's one moment where Washington and his senior people agreed that we couldn't have any Republicans. And that's what the Jefferson-Madison team was being called. He couldn't have any of them as army officers, because they weren't trustworthy. And that's sort of ugly. I was really sorry to see that, to cry partisanship as he did. It's better if you don't act quite so partisan. So it was not a glorious moment. And so it's good that that army never really had to do anything.

MJT: Washington passes a few years, or short time after that, and obviously doesn't have to deal with being a former president overshadowing his successors for any great length of time, which is probably the most politic thing he could have done at that point. 

DOS: I think having Jefferson as president would have gone down hard for him. His separation from Jefferson had not been terribly friendly, and people would not have liked that much.

MJT: Well, we've pretty much covered Washington's life at that point. Anything else you care to add?

DOS: No, this has been great.

MJT: Are you working on anything else coming out in the future?

DOS: Well, I, you know, I've worked back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. And I have three historical mysteries out. I've just signed to have three historical novels come out, which are inspired by my mother's family's history in this country. There is one of the 18th century, one in the 19th and one in the 20th. And they'll start coming out, I believe, in November. So that's fun. I love to write and it's a great privilege to be able to write both kinds

MJT: Nice. Well, we look forward to those. I will say, I've been a fan of you for some time. I really enjoyed your book The Summer of 1787, about the Constitutional Convention, I think was also a really interesting work. 

DOS: Thank you very much. 

MJT: All right. Well, thanks again for joining us today.

DOS: Thanks so much.