The American Revolution was an exceedingly close affair — and not just in its military outcome. The caliber of the leaders who emerged through the crucible of rebellion, combat, and ultimately fractious independence was always and ever in doubt. The historical counterfactuals can be dizzying to contemplate. But it’s a bit easier to imagine what would have happened if George Washington’s army had been trapped on Manhattan than what would have happened if any of Washington’s numerous detractors had succeeded in discrediting and replacing him.
In other words, the halo effect of history makes it easy to forget that our founding generation was every bit as beset with vice as any other human generation. Washington constantly fought a two-front war: the deadly battle with the British and the political battle to stay in command of his own ranks. I’m currently reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent new Valiant Ambition, which traces the intertwined and ultimately diverging paths of George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and I’ve been struck not just by the multiplicity of the plots against Washington but also by the staggering incompetence and corruption that brought a young nation to the brink of defeat.