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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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Another Despotically Ruled Statist Force?

For Presidents Day, the Ludwig von Mises Institute chose to share the essay “Generalissimo Washington: How He Crushed the Spirit of Liberty,” by anarchist/libertarian economist Murray N. Rothbard (1926-1995). Its approach to George Washington:

His only campaign in 1775 was internal rather than external; it was directed against the American army as he found it, and was designed to extirpate the spirit of liberty pervading this unusually individualistic and democratic army of militiamen. In short, Washington set out to transform a people’s army, uniquely suited for a libertarian revolution, into another orthodox and despotically ruled statist force after the familiar European model.
This essay got picked up by libertarian blogs everywhere. It offers a rarely voiced opinion of Washington, but I wasn’t won over to the notion that American militias could have won the Revolutionary War without the formation of the Continental Army.

The text came out of a four-volume history called Conceived in Liberty, which Rothbard published around the Bicentennial. The institute’s website describes that as:
a detailed account of American colonial history that stressed the libertarian antecedents of the American Revolution. As usual, he challenged mainstream opinion. He had little use for New England Puritanism, and the virtues and military leadership of George Washington did not impress him. For Rothbard, the Articles of Confederation were not an overly weak arrangement that needed to be replaced by the more centrally focused Constitution. Quite the contrary, the Articles themselves allowed too much central control.
What did Rothbard like about the American Revolution? In an interview sometime during America’s Vietnam War, Rothbard said:
Charles Lee...was the brilliant Revolutionary theorist who was the second in command to George Washington for the first few years of the American Revolution. He was a British soldier of fortune and libertarian and wandered all over the world picking up military insights. As soon as the American Revolution broke out, Lee rushed to the United States to help out in the war effort, and was made second in command.

Lee set the pattern for the American victory, not Washington – well, I won’t go into that, but Lee set the pattern by pointing out that the American Revolution could only succeed as a people’s war from below – a guerrilla struggle, it you will – against the superior fire power of the British government. The government’s lacking the essential popular support, the guerrillas therefore become the people, and people became the guerrillas in the old battle grounds of Lexington and Concord, which victories were the first great American guerrilla action.
Lee had the right idea for winning the war, though he came to it rather late. In 1775-76, he was helping Washington discipline and reorganize the army at Boston. In addition, Lee never inspired the loyalty that his commander did. The Library of Congress website describes Lee this way:
The eccentric General Charles Lee was known for his slovenly appearance, and coarse language, and was rarely seen without his dogs.

Born in England, Lee fought for the Americans during the Revolution; he was particularly valued for his previous experience in the British army. Captured by the British in 1776 while dallying in a tavern, Lee was released in time to lead a command at the Battle of Monmouth (June 28, 1778), during which he ordered a sudden and inexplicable retreat. Publicly reprimanded by General George Washington, Lee was eventually court-martialed and suspended from service for disobedience and misbehavior.
Click on the thumbnail above for a closer look at this London caricature of Gen. Lee, said to actually be the best likeness of him ever created.

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