A review of Light-Horse Harry Lee and the Legacy of the American Revolution, by Charles Royster
Revolutions, we are told, always run the danger of devouring their children. Fortunately for Americans this is a truth of which we have no direct experience. Our post-revolutionary years were exempt from the bloody and bitter factional quarreling which characterized later revolutions. The zeal to bring about the promise of the American Revolution took more peaceful forms; but the absence of bloodshed does not mean absence of disagreement. The debate over both the meaning of the American Revolution, and the best means to secure its promise, began before the war ended and continues to this day. Henry Lee played a prominent role in the Revolutionary War, and his vision of the promise of the revolution was one which was widely shared. Lee lived to become disillusioned about the prospects for the young republic. Charles Royster, in his biography of Lee, tries to account for both Lee’s optimism and his disillusionment, but in doing so leaves out what is most important and so gives a confused and obscure account.
Henry, or Harry, Lee had a most unusual career. Scion of the noblest of Virginia’s great houses, he became one of the youngest commanders in the Revolutionary War. A brilliant and daring tactician at the age of twenty-two, by the time he was fifty his poorly planned speculations had bankrupted him. A three-term governor of Virginia in the 1790’s, his Federalism led to conflict with the Republican legislature, and he was eventually expelled from office. For a life that had begun with such great promise, Lee’s ended in unusual failure and dishonor. That failure was in part the consequence of Lee’s own optimism.
Royster contends, in spite of Lee’s unique career, that he is in some way typical of the men of his generation. Lee was an extreme example; but others thought and felt and suffered much as he did. In fact, Lee’s uniqueness is a virtue: “The extremes of his conduct and fortunes might set questions in bolder relief.” The questions, for Royster, are:
What did a revolutionary strive for in war? How did the war effect his understanding of the Revolution? In what ways did his experience in the Revolution and its war shape his life and, through him, his country (p. xii)?
To ask these questions is proper and reasonable—the search for men’s motivations and their reactions to their deeds is central to the historian’s work. Missing, however, from Royster’s questions is any consideration of the things which set one revolutionary apart from another. All revolutionaries, to borrow a revolutionary phrase, are not created equal. To ask for the goals of a revolutionary in war is to ask for a manifesto, a statement of principle, and this Royster does not provide. The differences between Washington and Mirabeau, or between Mirabeau and Trotsky, are seen most clearly when seen as differences of principle. The goal of any war is victory. Someone who fights for a goal is likely always to cherish it more fiercely than one who does not fight. Henry Lee held fiercely to his revolutionary principles, and yet he came to be labeled a “monarchist.” He was a member of a minority party which was viewed as “aristocratic” in principle if not in intent. Both parties claimed to be faithful to the principles of the Revolution. Any understanding of their differences must begin from an understanding of their principles.
Royster correctly points out that the Revolutionary war was also a civil war. Precisely because it was a civil war—as Royster does not say—customary, ancestral, historical, or traditional ties did not determine one’s allegiance. What would determine allegiance was a matter of principle: did one fight for King and country, or for natural rights? The things that Henry Lee and his compatriots fought for were expressed by the Declaration of Independence. More was at stake than merely the uprising of a few disgruntled colonials: they had appealed to, and meant to defend, the rights of all men everywhere. The war was justified by the worthiness of the principles for which it was fought. But the real problem would come after the war, when it had to be decided how to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
The public debate over how best to attain the goals of the Revolution has outlasted the original participants. Yet when the Founding generation attempted to answer them, they, like those who had to choose sides in the war, could be guided only by principles. There was no national tradition of republican government, and scarcely any national feeling, in the young republic. The Federalist Papers are a lasting monument to the brilliance of that debate, and a monument as well to the Founders’ confidence in men’s ability to reason about, choose between, and act upon principles.
The Founders’ way of thinking about the mind has become old-fashioned, regarded as something eccentric or merely silly. Royster represents a more progressive school of thought, one that regards the mind as an instrument, a tool, which can attain goals but cannot choose between them (vide, p. 28). The mind is the servant of incompletely understood impulses which originate within it but which it cannot control. Thus men cannot choose their goals, which is to say that they cannot choose their principles: the idea of a war fought for a principle is nonsense. Needless to say, the Founders, and among them Henry Lee, did not see themselves this way. That may have been rationalization. But Royster’s analysis is careless of the things the Founders themselves thought to be important.
The eighteenth century had seen a dramatic unfolding of the human mind, an unfolding which led men to a new appreciation of the authors of antiquity. Classical authors were the textbooks and authorities for the men of the founding generation: those who led the most radical innovation in modern politics turned for their instruction to classical thought. Henry Lee was no exception. Like most educated men of his generation, the Princeton-trained Lee was thoroughly familiar with classical thought. Royster tells us this much, only to deny that it had any influence (p. 27). He was profoundly moved, we are told, by the Ajax of Sophocles; but Royster does not tell us why such a work would appeal to such a man. But after all, could a man who admired Ajax be anything other than a High Federalist?
Ajax was defeated by Odysseus in the contest for the armor of Achilles. In Sophocles’ play, the mad Ajax attempts revenge upon the Greeks, but the goddess Athena causes him to murder a flock of sheep instead. Ajax’s passion for honor had driven him insane when Achilles’ armor was awarded to a lesser man. The same passion led him to fall upon his sword when he realized what he had tried to do to the Greeks. Ajax had been the only worthy candidate for Achilles’ armor, but he was defeated by the votes of those who were envious of his fighting abilities. He lacked the arts of the crafty Odysseus, those political skills which made Odysseus first in the councils of the Greeks as Achilles was first on the battlefield.
The American Revolution had one figure who combined the talents of Achilles and Odysseus: George Washington. It was Henry Lee who said that he was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his fellow citizens.” With this stature, however, came the danger that no worthy successor could be found. Who could be worthy of taking up the shield of Washington? His presence alone had kept the nation together in its infancy; the promise that he would be the first President insured the adoption of its new constitution. After the death of Achilles, the already divided Greeks fell to squabbling over his armor; the quarrel further divided their counsels and led to the death of Ajax. Ajax was a virtuous man—a soldier. The Odysseus of Sophocles’ play is a schemer: could Lee have foreseen in the play the rise of scheming politicians in the young republic, politicians who would replace virtue with ambition? Ajax had lost his contest because many of the Greeks were envious of his fighting ability: what were the prospects for a government composed of men calculated not to arouse envy?
Henry Lee believed that military virtue—the virtue of a good soldier—was the foundation of a republic. He was not alone. The Romans held out a vivid example of a republic founded on the virtues of a citizen-soldiery. Their example did not pass unnoticed by the founders, and surely (although Royster does not mention it) it would not have been unnoticed by Lee. But if the Roman example was not enough, Lee could point to the behavior of the Continental Army during the war. Their devotion, their willingness to sacrifice their lives if need be for their principles and their nation, were the highest examples of virtue Lee had seen. He had not seen the same kind of devotion from the civilian population. Would peace and prosperity prove the death of virtue in America, as it had in Rome? Lee turned in his mind to the search for measures which would prevent such a calamity.
Lee, and many others, thought that the Federalist party would provide the leadership and the virtues necessary to sustain the Republic. Royster, with the benefit of hindsight, calls Lee’s political opinions “his unrealistic version of the Revolution’s promise,” a judgment which Lee never reached (p. 81). Many of Lee’s fellow-Federalists shared his opinion that military virtue would be the foundation of the Republic. History records them as “monarchists,” a charge from which Royster only half-heartedly defends Lee. Still, virtue has been shown to be impossible by modern philosophy: Royster is justified in calling Lee “unrealistic.” But Royster’s superior understanding of Lee has its costs, for it results in ignoring Lee’s own understanding of his own politics. Royster’s portrait is simultaneously intolerant of Lee’s politics and overly sympathetic to his misfortunes. Royster’s Lee is a victim of his circumstances; he is not responsible for either his vices or his virtues.
The American Revolution did not devour its children. It did spark a debate over what a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” should be. Henry Lee took one side in that debate, the side that favored union and strong national government. His youngest son, Robert, would take the other side. Charles Royster’s blindness to questions of principle robs Lee’s life of its meaning; it obscures, when it should illuminate. The life of a revolutionary cannot be seen for what it is, if it is not seen to be animated by an attachment to principle-an attachment so strong that he will fight for it. Henry Lee was a revolutionary and a patriot. Royster does not show us what it means to be either one.