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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Sunday, January 03, 2021

What Frederick the Great Thought of Washington

The Bicentennial dubbed the time between the Continental Army’s expedition against Trenton on 25 Dec 1776 and the Battle of Princeton on 3 Jan 1777 the “ten crucial days” of the New Jersey campaign. More recently, William L. Kidder wrote a book of that name.

One widely repeated statement about that period appeared in a footnote of Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, by His Adopted Son, George Washington Parke Custis in 1859. The “illustrative and explanatory notes” of that volume were written by Benson J. Lossing.

One of those notes concluded:
It is said Frederick the Great of Prussia declared, that the achievements of Washington and his little band of compatriots, between the twenty-fifth of December, 1776, and the fourth of January, 1777, a space of ten days, were the most brilliant of any in the annals of military achievements.
Lossing provided no source for this statement. Indeed, by prefacing it with the phrase “It is said…” he acknowledged that he didn’t have an identifiable source and was relying on hearsay at best. Lossing also didn’t use quotation marks, signaling that he wasn’t claiming to reproduce Frederick’s words, even in translation.

In the following decades Lossing wrote more books about the Revolution, including school textbooks, in which he repeated this statement with no “It is said” beginning. Other authors quoted the phrases about “Washington and his little band of compatriots” and “the most brilliant of any in the annals” from Lossing, using quote marks. That made it appear that those words came from a reliable translation of Frederick’s own words.

Authors continue to repeat that so-called quotation from Frederick in this century. The words appear in Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington and Michael E. Newton’s book on Alexander Hamilton’s rise. My curiosity about the words was piqued by a tweet from Mount Vernon last month. But all the citations lead back to Lossing’s footnote, with its lack of a direct quotation and highly fudged attribution. (I didn’t find any mention of Frederick the Great in Larry Kidder’s book, nor in David H. Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing.)

In 1874, the American historian and diplomat George Bancroft published the tenth volume of his History of the United States, covering some of the war years. In the preface he described studying many archives in Europe, and especially in Berlin, where he was posted. But he wrote: “I sought for some expression, on the part of Frederic, of a personal interest in Washington; but I found none.” Bancroft really wanted to find such evidence, and he came up empty.

In 1904 Paul Leland Haworth published an article in the American Historical Review titled “Frederick the Great and the American Revolution.” By then the Prussian king’s papers had been archived, transcribed, and published. That let Haworth demonstrate how Frederick’s interest in the distant war in North America arose entirely from his pleasure at seeing the British Empire diminished. In his conclusion Haworth echoed Bancroft’s statement: “there is nowhere in Frederick's correspondence any trace of a personal interest in Washington.“

Whatever we might think of the Continental Army’s maneuvers at the end of 1776 and the start of 1777, we can’t ascribe that opinion to Frederick the Great.

TOMORROW: The letter, the portrait, and the sword.

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