The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns
Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn
Chapter 6: “A people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove”: the rebels and their leaders in the American Revolution
In January 1777, a week after the Continentals shocked the world with the series of daring raids at Trenton and Princeton, New Jersey, a newly raised body of approximately 600 Pennsylvania militia refused to join the victorious army. They had, rumors told, “gone home in disgust—turn’d others back” and “spread universal uneasiness and dissatisfaction as they travel’d.” The problem seemed to stem from a “precipitate order” from Major General Lord Stirling, who implied that militia troops would not receive promised supplies. Once General Stirling’s orders became known, “the Officers who commanded the Men could not with all their influence & exertions prevail [them] to stay.” After some effort to clarify the situation—which involved the Commander-in-Chief of the army; the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania, a committee of the legislature of Pennsylvania, and a committee of the Continental Congress—the men were reassured that they would have everything they needed. Lecturing Major General Stirling, George Washington noted that although it was often disagreeable to work with the militia, it was necessary—and Stirling needed to remember that “a people unused to restraint must be led, they will not be drove,” and “even those” who had agreed to serve for the duration of the war needed to be “disciplined by degrees.” This was an example of a successful mobilization—as the eventual successful prosecution of the war would be—of institutional flexibility and popular, that is to say, responsive leadership.
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