In celebration of the groundbreaking on Mount Vernon’s Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, we’ve asked a few of our favorite historians to weigh in on various aspects of the first president’s leadership style. Historian and professor William P. Leeman writes this week’s installment:
George Washington occupies a prominent place at the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y. A triumphant equestrian statue of the Continental Army’s commander in chief, located in front of Washington Hall, forms an imposing presence overlooking the Plain, the parade ground that dates back to the Revolutionary War. At West Point, Washington serves as an inspirational figure for the Corps of Cadets – he’s a victorious general, but also a model of the military professionalism that West Point strives to develop in the future leaders of the United States Army.
At first glance, George Washington might seem to be an unlikely champion of military professionalism. Well before earning the acclaim of his fellow Americans during the Revolutionary War, Washington had learned the art of war informally through experience and observation, completing what was essentially a military apprenticeship. Washington began his military career as a major in the Virginia militia in February 1753, just before his 21st birthday. Later that year, Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent the ambitious young officer to the Ohio Valley to inform the French that the Ohio Country was British territory and that the French had to leave the area or face war. Eagerly setting out on this crucial mission, Washington made contact with the French, who promptly refused to leave the Ohio Valley, and Washington returned to Virginia to deliver the unfortunate news to the governor. In response, Dinwiddie promoted Washington, gave him command of 200 militiamen and ordered him to dislodge the French from the Ohio Country.
Leaving Virginia in the spring of 1754, Lieutenant Colonel Washington and his men were little more than untrained amateurs in the profession of arms. Overly enthusiastic for battle, the daring but inexperienced Washington ordered a surprise attack on a small French contingent that was approaching his force. Only after the attack, during which the Virginians soundly defeated the French, did Washington realize that the French party was a diplomatic mission traveling east to stake France’s claim to the Ohio Country. Washington had fired the opening shots of what would become the French and Indian War. With French reinforcements on the way, Washington’s men hastily built a primitive fortification that Washington dubbed “Fort Necessity.” The French and their Indian allies attacked the fort in early July, inflicting heavy casualties and forcing Washington to surrender. Washington had been excessively bold and impulsive his first time out as a commander. Though he showed courage and determination under fire, he also demonstrated his lack of military experience and his lack of knowledge of the art of war.
Perhaps because of this less-than-impressive start to his military career, Washington came to value military education as an essential component of leadership. His own military education consisted of practical experience in the field, observation, discussions with veterans and reading works of military history, memoirs of famous commanders, and treatises on military discipline and organization. As president, Washington advocated the establishment of a military academy to educate Army officers. In his eighth and final message to Congress, Washington argued that an academy was vital to America’s national security in the hostile and uncertain world of the late-18th century, a world dominated by monarchy, imperialism and militarism. “However pacific the general policy of a nation may be,” Washington cautioned, “it ought never to be without an adequate stock of military knowledge for emergencies.” Perhaps recalling his own personal experiences on the battlefields of the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, Washington acknowledged the complex nature of the military profession as well as the need to acquire military knowledge not just in the field but also through academic studies: “Whatever argument may be drawn from particular examples superficially viewed, a thorough examination of the subject will evince that the art of war is at once comprehensive and complicated, that it demands much previous study, and that the possession of it in its most improved and perfect state is always of great moment to the security of a nation.” Although Congress failed to heed Washington’s advice, the former president remained a proponent of military education after his presidency. Writing from Mount Vernon shortly before his death in December 1799, Washington endorsed a proposal for a national military academy devised by Alexander Hamilton, describing the proposed institution as “an Object of primary importance to this Country.”
William P. Leeman is an assistant professor of history at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. He previously taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point and is the author of The Long Road to Annapolis: The Founding of the Naval Academy and the Emerging American Republic (2010).
Photo of Washington’s statue by William P. Leeman.