“An army of asses led by a lion is better than an army of lions led by an ass.”
The Quote and the Sentiment
The quote about asses (donkeys) and lions is frequently attributed to George Washington, but it is an ancient quote. Sometimes it is attributed to Alexander the Great. Sometimes it is attributed to Aesop or just-plain-anonymous. It really does not matter who “coined” the phrase. George Washington definitely quoted it and adhered to its truths.
As a young Virginia militia officer assigned to the British Army, long before American independence was even a glimmer, George Washington learned first hand from his mentor General Edward Braddock, the importance of well-trained and disciplined army officers.
When Washington became General of the Continental Army in 1775, a full fifteen years after his “first retirement,” he made it his practice to do just that: select bright men to become officers and train and discipline them well.
Some, like Henry Knox and Nathaniel Greene were excellent field generals. Some, like Alexander Hamilton and Edmund Randolph, became valued personal aides for the never-ending reports and paperwork and correspondence. Both would be re-recruited years later to serve in President Washington’s cabinet. Since the nascent Congress had serious problems funding the army, some of those officers and aides were volunteers, serving gratis.
Turnover and Replacement
In the eight years of the American War of Independence (it actually lasted two years past the British surrender at Yorktown), George Washington had enlisted 32 men as his aides-de-camp at some time. They held the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Most of them served for fairly short terms, perhaps a year. Some were transferred for various reasons: employing their talents elsewhere, special assignments, and of course, health, serious injury and/or death.
Tench Tilghman served the longest: August, 1776 through November, 1783. He had planned to stay through the “active” campaign of 1776, but remained from the Battle of Trenton to the Surrender at Yorktown. Despite being seriously ill at the time, Tilghman was given the honor to race to Philadelphia with the news of Cornwallis’ surrender.
The End of the Continental Army
The formal peace process concluding the war between Great Britain and the United States was a long ordeal. It was held in Paris, went through endless meetings and changes and correspondence, and entrusted to a Congress in Philadelphia filled with a “B-list” of representatives. It took the better part of two years to conclude.
Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been sent abroad. George Washington remained with his army, maintaining the tenuous peace, and making sure the British Army vacated its “former” possessions. He had serious concerns about prematurely disbanding the Army.
Finally, in September, 1783, word came that the Treaty of Paris had been accepted, signed and was a proverbial “done deal.” By December, the remaining British soldiers had embarked for England and American soldiers were discharged. George Washington prepared to resign his commission, and return to his beloved Mount Vernon.
The Fraunces Tavern
Samuel Fraunces, a licensed “freeman and innholder,” was a New York tavern keeper. The Fraunces Tavern still stands as a treasured historic site at 54 Pearl Street in New York City (a short walk from the World Trade Center).
Taverns were a popular and necessary part of any community. Not only did they accommodate travelers, but they were places for citizens to gather, exchange news, enjoy fellowship and occasional entertainment, and usually excellent food and beverage. The upstairs Long Room at the Fraunces could hold nearly a hundred people, and was periodically used for parties.
On December 4, 1783, the war now officially over, George Washington invited his officers to a private dinner in the Long Room of the Fraunces Tavern for a final farewell.
The Farewell Dinner
Col. Benjamin Tallmadge is usually credited with providing the best recollection of the uncommonly emotional leave-taking, recalled privately as an elderly man. Decades later, his memoirs were compiled by his children. (Tallmadge, by the way, was Washington’s clever spymaster during the Revolution. Years later, after the War, he served in Congress.)
The dinner was set for noon on December 4, owing to better lighting and convenience. Besides, General Washington was planning to board a ship later that afternoon, en route to Annapolis where Congress was meeting.
George Washington was an exacting man, and did not suffer fools gladly. He frequently lamented the incapacity of his officers, his troops, the Congress, and even inclement weather. His persona was cool; he did not encourage familiarity. He consistently maintained a polite, but proper distance throughout his life. Nevertheless, his soldiers revered him. At least mostly.
According to award-winning historian Thomas Fleming, for several months there had been great unrest among the American officers. They had not been paid; all the promises from Congress had been ignored, glossed over, or downright countermanded. George Washington had steadfastly taken their part, and used his inordinate prestige on their behalf, to seek the justice that was due them. Earlier that year, he had managed to avert a serious mutiny. His efforts were less than fruitful, and he felt powerless to alleviate the soldiers’ legitimate grievances.
Nevertheless, at the appointed time, Washington’s officers, many of whom he knew only slightly, entered the Long Room of the Fraunces Tavern, and shortly thereafter were joined by the General. According to the memoirs of the elderly Benjamin Tallmadge:
“With a heart full of love and gratitude I now take leave of you,” Washington said as he lifted his glass. “I most devoutly wish that your latter days may be as prosperous and happy as your former ones have been glorious and honorable. I cannot come to each of you but shall feel obliged if each of you will come and take me by the hand.”
They came forward. They shook his hand. Some actually clasped his shoulder. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Including his.
Fleming, Thomas – Washington’s Secret War – Smithsonian Books, 2005
Flexner, James T. – George Washington in the American Revolution (1775-1783) – Little Brown, 1994