This weekend I attended my first Society for Military History Annual Conference. I only attended a small portion of the conference due to other obligations, but the experience was a positive one and I will definitely be attending future gatherings. Jacksonville, Florida hosted this year’s conference and the view was beautiful!
Although, I must admit, the charms of Florida in the winter are a little lost on me (especially because I currently live in Southern California). I am a winter lady through and through. That being said, it was nice to know that snow storms wouldn’t be affecting my flight.
I had the opportunity to explore the book room (and add to my always-expanding library), meet with some new acquaintances, and present on a panel. Everyone I spoke to was incredibly welcoming and encouraging about my work. I must confess, I did wonder if I’d be one of the few women attending the conference. I was really pleasantly surprised at the number of women energetically involved in SMH and the diversity of topics—both traditional military studies and works that focus on gender, sexuality, and culture in the military. There is nothing like a friendly conference to get my scholarly juices flowing!
The highlight for me, without question, was my panel. I always really enjoy sharing my work with new audiences and I approach it as an opportunity to discuss some ongoing questions and ask for input. I’ve found that method tends to produce a much more fruitful experience for the audience and for me because they feel like they can offer suggestions and questions to consider—not just criticisms. And selfishly, I learn so much more and come away from the panel with so many ideas for my own scholarship.
My paper was titled “The Revolutionary War and the Presidency: How George Washington’s Councils of War Shaped the First Presidential Cabinet.” The paper stems from a chapter in my manuscript that explores how Washington drew on his leadership experience from the Revolutionary War to guide cabinet interactions during his presidential administration. In the chapter, I look at two different military practices: Washington’s official family and the councils of war. As Commander-in-Chief, Washington treated his favorite officers and aides-de-camp as an official family. They enjoyed meals together, attended social gatherings at headquarters, and hosted visiting dignitaries. I argue that Washington recreated this social environment as President. The department secretaries and his private secretary became his official family. They gathered for private dinners at the President’s House and accompanied Washington on recreational trips into the countryside. For the sake of timeliness (each presenter gets about 15 minutes), I completely ignored the official family in this paper and devoted all of my time to the councils of war.
My paper explored how Washington regularly convened councils of war as Commander-in-Chief before embarking on a major campaign, ordering a retreat, or selecting winter quarters. He used councils to solicit advice from his officers, to build consensus among the officer corps, and to provide political cover before selecting a potentially controversial decision. I argue that Washington utilized a number of strategies to control the agenda and pace of councils of war, as well as the flow of information: he submitted questions for the officers to consider in advance or at the beginning of the meeting; if the officers expressed conflicting opinions, Washington requested written opinions to make sure he heard from every officer; and if the issue was particularly controversial, he summoned several councils to ensure he understood every position.
The second portion of my paper examined the parallels between the councils and the cabinet. Washington primarily convened cabinet meetings when faced with diplomatic crises or before establishing important constitutional precedents. Washington used similar strategies to shape cabinet interactions: he distributed questions for the secretaries to consider in advance of meetings; if the secretaries disagreed, Washington called another cabinet meeting a few days later hoping that the break would allow the men to reach a consensus; if the secretaries persisted in their disagreement, he requested written opinions so that he could consider each position thoroughly and in private.
The audience was so supportive and encouraging. They offered a number of excellent suggestions and questions for me to consider. These are the takeaways that I still need to grapple with in order to make this chapter (and a potential article) as compelling and thorough as possible:
1) Washington’s councils v. other American councils v. British councils: Most of the questions expressed interest in how Washington’s councils of war differed from those convened by other American generals (such as Horatio Gates) or by British generals. They (correctly) suggested that the comparisons between Washington’s councils and cabinets would be more powerful if I could speak to how Washington created his own council practices, or followed British tradition.
2) Parallels between events that precipitated councils and cabinet: There are unexplored parallels between the events that caused Washington to convene councils and cabinet. Were the diplomatic tensions that forced Washington to create the cabinet similar to campaign issues that Washington discussed in councils of war? Did the constitutional precedents examined by the cabinet parallel the councils Washington summoned to deliberate Congress’ response to winter quarters? I don’t know yet. But I need to look into it.
3) Parallels between council and cabinet development over time: In my manuscript, and other forthcoming articles, I argue that Washington’s use of the cabinet evolved over time. In the final years of his presidency, Washington turned away from the cabinet, preferring to request written opinions from the department secretaries, consult with trusted advisors outside of the administration, and rely on his own judgment. Washington also convened fewer councils as the war dragged on—I suspect for a number of reasons. Perhaps he preferred to meet individually with officers and hold all of the cards. Perhaps there was less need for councils because the theater of war moved south and Washington’s army entered fewer battles. I need to look more into these meeting patterns, as I think the numbers might reveal insights about Washington’s leadership and how he developed as Commander-in-Chief and President while in office.
I look forward to developing these ideas more thoroughly and I’ll share my progress as I find answers. If you have any additional questions or comments, I’d welcome them! And thanks again to SMH for the opportunity to present and the audience for their helpful feedback.