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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Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Washington and Knox: When Harry Met George

After my “Washington’s Artillery” talk earlier this month, Marty Ganzglass raised an interesting question:

You mentioned that General Washington took a liking to Henry Knox who was about half the General’s age. I wonder why a patrician planter from Virginia would befriend Knox who, while educated, would have been considered a tradesman and not of the educated class. I would appreciate your views on their relationship.
On the class issue, I think Knox had already risen into the genteel ranks. Bookselling was indeed a trade, but one that catered to an upper-class clientele, displayed a man’s learning, and involved importing goods from London, thus making Knox a merchant of sorts. A generation earlier, Thomas Hancock had built himself up from a bookseller to one of the richest men in Boston. A florid letter that Knox sent to the doctors who cared for his hand after a hunting accident showed how he was striving for genteel manners.

Knox’s 1774 marriage to Lucy Flucker cemented his class rise locally. He was now part of one of the most prestigious families in the province, even if Thomas Flucker hadn’t been particularly pleased with his daughter’s choice.

And then Knox put that status at risk by supplying useful information to the Patriots and joining them during the siege. He walked away from the patronage possibilities of being the provincial secretary’s son-in-law and perhaps (it didn’t turn out this way) from the family fortunes. I’m sure gossip about Knox’s choice reached Washington, and such willingness to sacrifice comfort for the cause would have pleased him.

As for the age difference between the two men, I think that may actually have helped their relationship. With Washington in his forties and Knox in his twenties, there was a clear distinction between them. Washington couldn’t feel any threat to his authority as he might have with older, experienced officers like Artemas Ward and, later, Horatio Gates.

Psychologically, Knox had lost his father at an early age. Washington had no son of his own (and Jack Custis wasn't proving very impressive). So each man might have been looking for someone like the other in his life. That could have made it easy for the two to slip into a mentor-protégé relationship. They were also both big, strong, physical men.

For much of his career, and especially in these early years as commander-in-chief, I don’t think Washington liked men disagreeing with him. He had to put up with it when all his generals voted against his plans to attack Boston (and chose Ward’s plan instead!), or when the Congress hinted that he wasn’t working quickly enough. But he chafed at those moments. Knox and the general tended to see eye-to-eye on both policies and methods. Washington learned he could rely on Knox not only to agree with his general planning but also to get things done.

Finally, lots of sources say Knox was a charming man. He met Washington on 5 July 1775. At the time he was working on the fortifications at Roxbury, but so was Lt. Col. Rufus Putnam. Knox waited on the general on 9 and 12 July, and on 8 August he dined was Washington’s headquarters. In late September (before his own wife’s arrival), the commander invited Lucy Knox to dine at his headquarters as well. All that face time suggests that the Knoxes were just fun to be around. It’s hard to quantify that quality, but it wouldn’t have hurt when Washington considered what to do with the artillery regiment the next month.


G. Lovely said...

As you note, "Bookselling was indeed a trade, but one that catered to an upper-class clientele..." true, but even today, in the twilight of bookstores, a knowlegdeable salesperson at the counter of your local Barnes & Noble is worth a thousand 'Customer Reviews' on Amazon. In the 18th century, long before the first NYT Sunday Book Review, someone like Knox was no doubt a most desirable dining companion.

Anonymous said...

Another fact is that Washington himself was not from the highest ranks of the Virginia aristocracy, before he married Martha. He had worked as a surveyor and was not well-educated.
-- Joe Bauman

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Washington came from Virginia's lower gentry. By 1775 he'd been one of the province's most important planters for well over a decade, and carried himself as such. But he may have seen something of himself in another young man rising in society through a fortunate marriage and militia/military work.

Martin R. Ganzglass said...

This is a good analysis. When Knox was a bookseller in Boston, his patrons included British Officers and the lovely Lucy Flucker. So his clientele was high class.
In NYC, before the British arrived in force, both Lucy and Martha were there and the Knox' s dined with the Washingtons on at least one occasion and I believe with the Greenes as well. Henry and Lucy probably were good company. Certainly, his girth indicated he enjoyed his food. Marty Ganzglass

Deb said...

Knox was educated, but most of his education was hard-won - he attended the Latin School for one year at age 8. After that he taught himself from books - including the calculus, which was the foundation of his military prowess. Although the epitome of the American self-made man, and a living refutation of the British class system, his origins were really not that dissimilar to, say, Hamilton's.