Today’s special Boston 1775 entry comes from Ray Raphael, author of The First American Revolution, A People’s History of the American Revolution, and Founding Myths. You can download Ray's lecture on “Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and ‘the Body of the People’” at Old South Meeting-House in September here.
Instead of turning to friends of George 41, his own father, George W. Bush 43 could turn to someone of even greater authority and impeccable credentials: George 1, the “Father of our Country.”
On September 14, 1775, less than three months after he assumed command of the Continental Army, General George Washington ordered Colonel Benedict Arnold (whom we know today in quite a different context) to lead an invasion of British-held Quebec. Before sending Arnold on his way, Washington issued an enlightened set of instructions, words that should perhaps be heeded by modern American commanders before they march into foreign lands:
First, Arnold was to gather reliable intelligence: “You are by every means in your power to endeavour to discover the real sentiments of the Canadians towards our cause & particularly to this expedition.” To accomplish his mission, Arnold and his soldiers would first have to win the hearts and minds of the people, French Canadians and Indians who had only recently been subjected to British rule. Without their “favourable disposition,” Washington predicted, the expedition would inevitably flounder and fail.
If “real” intelligence suggested the people were “averse” to an American presence, Arnold was to adjust his plans accordingly: “In this case you are by no means to prosecute the attempt. The expence of the expedition & the disappointment are not to be put in competition with the dangerous consequences which may ensue from irritating them against us.”
Arnold should also return if the weather became too severe or if any other “unforeseen difficulties should arise.” In short, Washington gave Arnold free rein to “cut and run” should the circumstances turn sour.
Knowing that his troops (white and Protestant) did not share the values and customs of Canada’s inhabitants (Indian and Catholic), Washington insisted that soldiers still treat the locals charitably, never insult them, and above all, avoid “ridiculing” their religious ceremonies. “As the contempt of the religion of a country...has ever been deeply resented, you are to be particularly careful to restrain every officer & soldier from such imprudence & folly.”
Any soldier who failed to treat the people and their religion respectfully, Washington said, should be given “such severe & exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require. Should it extend to death itself, it will not be disproportionate to its guilt at such a time and in such a cause.”
While clamping down on American miscreants, Washington insisted that all prisoners of war be treated “with as much humanity & kindness as may be consistent with your own safety & the publick interest.” He told Arnold to restrain his troops “from all acts of cruelty & insult which will disgrace the American arms—and irritate our fellow subjects against us.”
Finally, Washington instructed Arnold to spend his limited funds with “frugality & oeconomy,...keeping as exact an account as possible of your disbursements.”
Although General Washington issued strict instructions to those below him, he himself ceded to orders from a higher power: the Continental Congress. “You are to regulate your conduct in every respect by the rules and discipline of war,” his commission from Congress stated, “and follow such orders and directions from time to time as you shall receive from this or a future Congress of the said United Colonies.” Washington accepted his commission from Congress with a humility not characteristic of recent times: “Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high honour done me in this appointment, yet I feel a great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities & military experience may not be equal to the extensive & important trust.”
Historical parallels are never perfect, of course. Times do change. So in the unlikely event that George 43 does decide to follow the advice of George 1, he will have to adjust his actions to suit the unique circumstances of today. George 1 did not have to worry about WMDs hidden deep within Canadian bunkers, for instance, nor did he benefit from the extensive “military experience” George 43 received in the Alabama National Guard.