J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 18, 2006

Guest Editorial: George 1 to George 43

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.


christine said...

I just found your blog listed on Bloggers "Blogs of Note" and am happy I did so.
My father's side of our family came from England and landed in Boston in 1632. Although I'm a born and raised Californian, I am fascinated with pre-revolutionary history and Boston in general. Thanks for sharing your expertise with the rest of us.

Jeroen said...

Fantastic and original thought-provoking article. But what becomes of B. Arnold? Does he inflame the protestant-catholic tensions? Do his soldiers humiliate their captives by making them huddle naked with black sacks on their heads? Does he emerge from Quebec with a clear exit strategy?

J. L. Bell said...

The Continental invasion of Canada in 1775 seemed to start well, with Gen. Richard Montgomery and Benedict Arnold taking Montreal and besieging Quebec. But the weather and smallpox bogged the army down. Montgomery was killed in battle. Eventually the American army retreated and dissolved. It's one of the campaigns we don't talk much about, or if we do, we talk about the opening stages.

I suspect another factor in that invasion's failure is that the troops were still largely raised through the militia system, not put through training as Valley Forge provided for the Continental Army in 1777-78. Militias are great for defending one's home alongside one's neighbors. I don't think they work so well for invading other people's homes. And although the Americans didn't meet an actively hostile welcome from the French-speaking farmers of Canada, that population didn't rush to join the Continental cause, either.

That meant the American militiamen were fighting to take over someone else's home when they could be at their own, and I think that sped up the retreat, to say the least.

Michael-From-The-Future said...


What a fantastic site! These articles will make you interested in the subject even if you weren't to begin with.

You've done a nice job with the history : )

Love the images too!
Take Care,

Michael F.T.F.

Anonymous said...

Hello! I actually found a blog about history! I've got a blog about history too. Just go to www.ancienthistorybuff.blogspot.com. AND PLEASE VISIT www.sciencetheories.blogspot.com. YOU can vote about my blog. Should it be deleted... or shall it live? BY the way, this blog is really cool.
P.S. How did you get on blogs of note? I wanna be on it.

EmailHosting.com said...

Turning to the original Father George Washington is the right thing to do. He was a President, one that you can be proud of.

Woman at the well said...

I´m happy I found your site because the subject fascinates me. If you ask me why I won´t be able to tell you.

Qohelet said...

History, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

Would you agree?

MIke said...

I really enjoy well written history and that's what you'vd given us.

Qohelet said...

Dear Boston 1775: I apologize if I came off as confrontational. It was not my intention. I really like the substance of the blog and will be back. I only meant to provoke some beneficial and good-natured discussion. So when you get the chance, could we throw back a couple of cyber Samuel Adamses and get to my question? Thanks.


J. L. Bell said...

Actually, Qohelet, I just didn't understand the question.

We use the term "history" for two different things. One meaning is the events of the past. The other is the selection, recollection, and interpretation of those events in a way that seems significant.

The second meaning of "history" is necessarily subjective. People disagree on what's most important, on how events fit together, on what lessons (if any) they might hold for the present and future.

The first meaning of "history" is objective. People of the time had different motivations, subconscious thoughts, interpretations, intentions, etc., but what happened happened. That aspect of "history" is not in the eye of the beholder, I think. But since the eye of the beholder is the only way it's preserved and made into the other kind of "history," we can't escape subjectivity.

Qohelet said...


(mug tip)

Billgls said...

George 41 could have profited with George 1's orders also. He left a job unfinished that led to more grief It is now a war much as the British fought in the American Colonies instead of marching columns of soldiers into a slaughter as Hannibal. Rumsfeld energetically added changes that was opposed by the old generals all the way .