Interrogating the Project of Military History

April 20 -  I am still slogging through Willing Obedience.  It is interesting, and becomes more so as I get deeper into it.  But it is very slow going because of my lack of familiarity with the technique.  Moreover, if Prof. Samet does not explain the overall approach that informs her work, neither does she explain how she selects the texts she analyzes.  I've had to work that out for myself.

I'll get to that in a moment.  First I want to complain about the wandering quality of the book.  Prof. Samet rarely gives the reader an overview of the journey ahead.  Rather, she just takes the reader by the hand and goes from one key text to another.  The progression is logical and eventually you see where she's going, but the reading experience would be much improved if she gave you a heads up beforehand.  If this is a deliberate strategy on her part, I fail to appreciate it so far.

For instance, Chapter One, "The Washington Touch," has as its first section, "John Adams's Coups de Theatre" but actually opens with an analysis of Parson Weems's Life of Washington (1809), especially the cherry tree episode.  John Adams doesn't show up for five pages.  Then Washington himself shows up, and after that the chapter basically alternates between Adams and Washington.  You're clueless about the point of the chapter for at least five pages, and in my own first reading I went through at least ten before I caught on and circled back a few pages to make sure.

Parson Weems, John Adams, George Washington (and subsequently Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln, among others). . . . Hmm.   Plainly Prof. Samet, in taking up her inquiry into the meanings of autonomy, allegiance, and consent, has chosen to focus on people whose ideas are part of the elite political canon.  Other options were available to her.  For instance, over the weekend I commented on a paper given at the annual meeting of the Ohio Academy of History.  The paper focused on the difficulty faced by Gen. Nathanael Greene and Thomas Jefferson in getting the Virginia militia to turn out reliably for service.  Many militiamen stayed home out of concern for the family or farms and some because they were lukewarm about the revolutionary cause; some protested violently against the selective conscription of militiamen for long-term service.

The Virginia militia imbroglio precisely exemplifies the issues Prof. Samet seeks to explore.  And so for example, instead of Parson Weems, she might have given a close reading to one of the petitions submitted by Virginia militiamen asking to be excused from active duty.  There's no particular reason to privilege elites, as if only they had some special insight into the tensions between autonomy and allegiance.  I'm not saying there's any reason to avoid elites, either.  But if one is going to focus on elites, why these particular elites? Prof. Samet never explains.

Even more odd: the first chapter doesn't deal with the book's purprted central theme; i.e., the tension between autonomy and allegiance.  Instead it implicitly assumes that the revolutionary citizen-soldier (and by extension the civilian citizen) will give his allegiance--it's just a question of who or what will receive the allegiance.  John Adams worried that George Washington's "touch" was so powerful it might actually harm or destroy the new republic.

"Because Washington so obviously secured a personal rather than a strictly official obedience, even if Adams trusted to the general's superior disinterestedness, he nevertheless feared the example of an individual who proved able so easily to persuade the people of their better interests.  A republic could not be built on exceptions." (17)

Washington understood the potential for such an outcome.  He tried to avoid it by performing his role as Continental Army commander and president in a certain way. The term "performing" is deliberate. Prof. Samet "performing his role" in precisely the same sense that one would use it in relation to a stage actor.  "Although he could not escape setting such a precedent," she writes, "Washington tried to combat its ill effects by rhetorically preserving two identities--that of citizen and soldier in his military career, that of public and private man in his political career."   The core of the chapter discusses how Washington did this--his famous subordination to the Continental Congress, his handling of the Newburgh conspiracy, his habit of yielding power and retiring to private life, and so on.

It also deals with the reaction to the performance of people like Adams, who never quite bought Washington's Cincinnatus routine and in any event, continued to doubt that the people could be weaned from their infatuation with generals. "Conquerors do not so easily disappear, Battles and Victories are irresis[t]able by human Nature," Adams acknowledged at one point. At another, he lectured:

"The social science will never be much improved, until the people unanimously know and consider themselves as the fountain of power. . . .  They must be taught to reverence themselves, instead of adoring their servants, their generals, admirals, bishops, and statesmen."  "The Apotheosis of Washington," shown at left, probably appalled Adams, but one doubts that it surprised him.

The problem was not loyalty to Washington per se.  It was the dangerous precedent of allegiance to a charismatic leader rather than to the principles of the republic.  Revolutionary France became enamored of Napoleon and by 1804 it was no longer a republic, even in theory.  Washington was not an American Napoleon, but as far as it goes, Julius Caesar was never a caesar, either.  That distinction belonged to his protege Octavian.  By the same token, a former lieutenant of Washington--for example, Alexander Hamilton--might have inherited and capitalized upon the mantle of Washington.

Prof. Samet views the tension between loyalty to a man and loyalty to republican principles as running throughout American history--at least as far as 1951, when Harry S Truman fired Douglas MacArthur.  In taking that step, Truman justified himself, interestingly, by pointing to the example of Washington and not the U.S. Constitution (which would seem the obvious thing to do since Article II, section 2, paragraph 1 explicitly says who's boss).  "By making the man a synecdoche for the principle, Truman ironically succeeded in completing the rhetorical transformation of the citizen into the deity and savior." (49)

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