Michael Pack, president of the Claremont Institute, was a guest of Breitbart News Daily’s American Revolution Special, where he talked with SiriusXM host Stephen K. Bannon about the illustrious subjects of his critically acclaimed films Rediscovering George Washington and Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton.
Washington, of course, was the “indispensable man” of the Revolution, “the Founding Father you could least do without,” as Pack hailed him.
Contrary to Washington’s modern image as “staid and reserved and cold,” Pack noted that he was one of the most charismatic men of his age, regarded as such by friends and enemies alike.
“We’re ill-served, in some ways, by the paintings and busts of Washington, very late in his life,” said Pack. He added:
He was a young hero. He was an intrepid and, perhaps, overly courageous figure in the French and Indian War, where he got into some trouble, and he was a courageous figure in the American Revolution. When soldiers saw him, their courage was reinforced. He was a symbol of steadfastness. He was unafraid. Bullets whizzed past him. He always put himself at the front of the action.
He noted that another lost aspect of Washington’s character was his occasionally volcanic temper, noted by both eyewitnesses to some of his most powerful eruptions on the battlefield and by Jefferson and Hamilton at cabinet meetings.
“We have a scene at the Battle of Monmouth where General Lee failed to do what Washington wanted. He rode up to him and yelled at him in front of all the troops. People wrote about it for many years afterward,” said Pack. “He was so excited, someone once said it was like the leaves were going to fall from the trees. Incompetence did not make Washington happy.”
Washington’s courage and charisma held his underpaid, ill-equipped, and often-defeated revolutionary army together through the toughest years of the war, but it was his genius as a military strategist that eventually brought victory. The most difficult lesson he learned was that his forces were no match for the mighty British army in open field engagements.
“He trained them to where they could at least meet the British and fight them to a standstill, but he realized he had to fight a war of attrition,” said Pack:
He had to not engage the British and just outlast them, and let their very long supply lines, all the way back to Britain, and their many other worldwide commitments bleed the British. So he was forced to fight a kind of war he did not want to fight, but he was a great general because he figured out the kind of war he needed to fight – and then he fought it, whether it was to his taste or not.
Another forgotten aspect of Washington’s revolutionary campaign is that, despite his personal charisma and the high esteem in which he was held, he had plenty of enemies within the Colonies seeking to undermine his command. It is hard for the modern audience to imagine so many people trying to stab George Washington in the back, but Pack said that is exactly what happened.
Especially at the beginning of the war, the famous Conway Cabal – other generals wanted the power that he had. When he was not winning, they were saying they could do better, and many in Congress who were not themselves militarily trained were very sympathetic. We had, especially in the beginning years of the war, many attempts to unseat him, especially given this strategy, that he was not fighting this aggressive attack, attack system, but he was trying to tire the British out. It looked like he wasn’t winning, the way that Congress wanted to win.
“The Continental Congress, like everyone, wanted a fast war, and there’s always a general that will promise people a fast war. But Washington was fighting the only war that we could win, and it wasn’t fast. So that set him up for these many acts of betrayal,” he stated, continuing:
And Washington was smart. He handled all those political maneuvers brilliantly. He rarely confronted the general that was trying to get around him. He’d find a way, and sooner or later, that general was shorn of his power and out. Washington was patient and calculating, where the rest of us, we’ve all had people betray us, it’s very hard not to fight back immediately.
Pack said that one of Washington’s greatest virtues was his immense self-restraint, which kept his fiery passions in check, helped him plan and execute long-term strategies in both war and politics, and led to “the two greatest acts that he ever did for America, that are beyond what anyone else had ever done.”
One of those acts was leading a revolutionary army to victory, which Pack observed is quite rare in the annals of history. The other was refusing to seize power, as nearly every other successful revolutionary leader before him had done – and nearly every revolutionary leader to come after him, for that matter. After winning the Revolutionary War, Washington handed his commission back to Congress and went home to Mt. Vernon.
“When you have the temptation to be a great leader, and you have all the power in your hands, no one had given it up before,” Pack marveled. “George III famously said, ‘If he will do that, then he will be the greatest figure of the age.’ Washington did it, and was the greatest figure of the age.”
In fact, Washington did it twice, when he retired from the presidency after only two years, despite the Constitution at the time allowing him to hold the office for life.
“He thought it was important to have a peaceful transition to power in a republic, and he voluntarily left office and gave up power a second time. Had Washington been president for the rest of his natural life, it would have set an incredibly bad precedent,” said Pack.
Bannon saluted Pack’s Rediscovering Alexander Hamilton as “not only breathtaking, but groundbreaking,” paving the way for the smash-hit Broadway play about Hamilton.
Pack said his approach was to rediscover Hamilton from a contemporary perspective, which fortune (ill fortune, that is) just happened to provide in the form of the 2008 financial crisis.
“Hamilton weathered the first financial crisis in the (Seventeen) Nineties, so we talked to then-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, about whether Hamilton would do as he did, and what he thought of what Hamilton did,” Pack recalled. “And since Hamilton also was in a duel over honor, we talked to former gang members who had also been in duels over honor, and we asked them what they thought of the Hamilton-Burr duel, and they had a lot to say, both good and bad.”
Pack agreed with Bannon that much of Hamilton’s renewed popularity stems from his character as a “modern” man, well ahead of his time in many ways.
“Hamilton is a great man,” he declared, noting that his historical reputation suffered from his many battles with Thomas Jefferson, who “outlived him, and was able to write the history.”
“Somehow Thomas Jefferson became a champion of the Democratic Party, so the Democrats for a while were pro-Jefferson and anti-Hamilton,” Pack observed.
He credited historian Forrest McDonald’s for launching the Hamilton renaissance with his 1982 biography, in which he took on “this sort of Charles Beard theory that all the Founders were just acting out of their self-interest, that they were just rich landowners, and all they cared about was maximizing their property.”
“Hamilton was a good counter-example to that, a man who had hardly any property,” said Pack. “He is a modern man. It’s Hamilton’s vision of America that has come to predominate. He came to New York City, and he was able to envision a great commercial republic rising up, with manufacturing and commerce as important as agriculture.”
“Many of the rich plantation owners, like his great friend/opponent Jefferson, and Madison for that matter, had a harder time seeing that. They thought it was all going to be farming. Virtue was in farming. We should all be farmers. It was important to be close to the land,” he said. “Hamilton had a vision that is closer to the modern vision.”
Pack added that Hamilton was “an immigrant from the West Indies,” so he “wanted a place where people could come from the outside, like he did, and make it, through hard work and genius.”
Alexander Hamilton did not start with many advantages in life. Pack noted that his childhood was “one horror after another,” with his father leaving while Hamilton was young, then his mother dying, and the uncle who became his guardian committing suicide.
He was poor, he was illegitimate, his family was always on the margins of white society in the West Indies, where that mattered. And he was able to overcome that. He was very lucky that he worked for a merchant house, Beekman and Cruger, where they recognized his skill, and he had a local minister, Knox, who also recognized his skill, and they raised money to send him to college.
“Without that – individual people, not the government, raising money and sending him off to college – who knows what Hamilton would be?” he wondered.
What Hamilton did become was a virtual son to George Washington, part of the brotherhood that fought the long and harsh campaign against the British crown. Hamilton’s fearless performance in the early battles of the war caught Washington’s eye, leading to a position as, in essence, Washington’s chief of staff.
“Hamilton always longed for military glory, and he finally got it at Yorktown, but fighting a war isn’t only about courage in battle, which Hamilton had in excess,” Pack said. “It’s also about this ability to deal with the politics of war, and Hamilton was essential to Washington in that, too.”
He said that Hamilton remained an inspiring figure to young people today because his life story “proves that you can make it, if you have energy, and don’t flag.”
“Hamilton did not let obstacles stop him–not just his early upbringing, but any obstacles,” Pack said with admiration. “He was indefatigable. He worked all the time. … He was incessant, and he was dedicated.”
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