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Letter From American History - June 2008

Originally published on Published Online: April 28, 2008 
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George Washington's Winning Ways

George Washington had a big problem. He was charged with leading his nascent nation—a collection of rough-hewn colonies—in waging war against the world's greatest superpower. He had an army, of sorts, to do battle with the British on the ground in America, but he had no navy, and building a navy would take considerable time and money, two things he didn't have much of in 1775. As the Congress debated and formed a committee to study the problem, colonial legislatures in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and elsewhere considered building their own fleets. But another option soon presented itself to revolutionary leaders—outsource Continental naval operations by authorizing private warships to intercept, attack, seize and loot British vessels anywhere on the high seas.

Washington first began to outfit private schooners and commissioning them to intercept British transports arriving during the siege of Boston in 1775. By early 1776, after initial reluctance by Washington and others to unleash the "pecuniary zeal" of maritime adventurers was overcome, Congress approved a privateering scheme and the American entrepreneurial spirit was energized to seize the opportunity. As our cover story by author Robert Patton illustrates, what began as an idea to augment a real national navy soon grew to become a crucial component of the American struggle for independence. These American pirates, and their financial backers, driven as much by the desire for quick riches from the booty they seized as by patriotism, not only struck a blow against Britain militarily and economically, but also helped to significantly undermine British public support of the war. Privateering proved to be an effective, if unconventional solution to a dire problem facing Revolutionary America, and the role it played in achieving victory remains largely under recognized.

Washington's embrace of the privateering solution serves as another reminder of his exceptional decision-making ability and extraordinary leadership qualities, which compelled a cadre of great thinkers and strong-willed men to follow him in forging a new course for America and ultimately the world. In this issue, we also asked Richard Brookhiser, author of the forthcoming George Washington on Leadership, to distill a short list of the highly effective habits of a successful Founding Father. These lessons from the life of Washington, critical to his success in business, revolution and governing, can be helpful to us all—in whatever endeavor we may choose.

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