Phillip Papas. Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee. New York: New York University Press, 2014. 410 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-6765-8.
Reviewed by Jennifer L. Paxton (Texas A&M Kingsville)
Published on H-War (October, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
A historian might be excused for supposing that the American Revolution, with its importance and its popularity and the near-mythic stature of many of its chief players (with the corresponding quantity written about them), can hardly be expected to furnish any remaining figures of any importance still lacking a biography. Phillip Papas, however, found just such a person in General Charles Lee: lifelong soldier and former English officer, passionate believer in liberty and human rights, second-in-command to George Washington for part of the American Revolution, and the Continental army’s most experienced officer. Despite his importance, however, according to Papas, Lee had been largely ignored by historians, and often relegated simply to an eccentric oddity or even a liability. This, Papas strongly asserts, is far from true. In Renegade Revolutionary, he tells Lee’s long-ignored or long-marginalized story, and does so powerfully.
In this well-written, balanced, and compassionate biography, Papas describes a man combining remarkable intelligence, passion, military acumen, and integrity with the less-admirable characteristics of rashness, rudeness, tactlessness, inflexibility, and a fierce temper. His contemporaries described him in widely varying terms: “odd genius,” “great sloven,” “careless in his manners,” “Great Man,” and “Queer Creature,” among many others; he was hated and loved, admired and despised, and sometimes by the same people, even at the same time (pp. 2, 110). Lee’s life comprised a series of violent highs and lows: he enjoyed close friendships with kings and statesmen, but also found himself a political pariah on more than one occasion, and less than five years separated his status as one of the most highly regarded of America’s generals (possibly, some people felt, more qualified than Washington to lead the Continental aArmy) and his court-martial and subsequent dismissal from the army altogether. Papas portrays Lee as obstinately honest and utterly tactless to the point of making many enemies for himself, visionary in his ideals, and offensive in person but often highly eloquent and persuasive in his writings; in short, according to Papas, Lee was complex, politically and interpersonally inept, and ultimately highly principled. Renegade Revolutionary is a narrative of a man’s life, but it is also a portrait, and one that Papas draws with particular vividness.
Parts 1 and 2 of Renegade Revolutionary describe Lee’s early life; his career as an officer in the English, Polish, and Russian armies (such a multinational career, Papas notes, was not particularly uncommon at the time); his decision to immigrate to America just before the Revolution; and many of the events and circumstances through which he developed his views on liberty, government, and the appropriate use of armies. In particular, Papas emphasizes how Lee’s experiences with guerilla fighting in the Seven Years’ War and the Russo-Turkish War shaped his own strategic doctrines, and how his time spent in despotic eastern Europe hardened and radicalized his views on freedom, democracy, the role of government, and the place of the army in a society. Thus, when Lee had made England too politically hostile for comfort (largely through his refusal to stop his public and very tactless criticisms of powerful people, including King George III; correct he might have been, but less than prudent), he took those opinions to what he called the “one Asylum” where liberty was still paramount: America (p. 92).
Papas describes Lee’s ideals and theories at some length, particularly his beliefs on the role of the army within a nation. In short, he did not believe a truly democratic society could have a professional standing army while remaining free; instead, he insisted the “citizen soldier” and the militia would keep the country safe. In his description of a utopian society (penned toward the end of his life, and one of the century’s most detailed such work), he envisioned mandatory militia training and service for all men, and indeed, the ability of the entire population (both sexes and all ages) to defend the nation if necessary. This would deprive the government of a standing army, which could be used to oppress and control the people.
According to Papas, in addition to his ideas about the role of the army, Lee also had other strong, and sometimes revolutionary, opinions. He insisted on excellent education for women, arguing that they carried the responsibility for raising the selfless and virtuous citizens of the next generation; in his ideal utopia at the very least, he favored civic involvement for women as well. He abhorred slavery generally, and rejoiced that in America, there would be no titles or rigid social hierarchy; each person would be judged only on merit. His dedication to liberty and equality (despite his own privileged birth) were passionate and complete. In most of these ideals he agreed strongly with the American revolutionaries, and when he arrived in America, he immediately set about placing himself in the center of events, calling (before many people, and just over a year before Thomas Paine’s Common Sense ) for revolution and independence.
Parts 3 and 4 of Renegade Revolutionary detail Lee’s career in the American Revolution itself. Papas emphasizes Lee’s disagreements with many in the Continental army, including Washington, and his tendency to lead as he felt was necessary, regardless of politics and, occasionally, of orders. However, Papas also strongly argues (particularly through correspondence) for the high regard the army had for Lee and his abilities, and even shows that some members of the Continental army, at least, regarded Lee as a more able commander in chief than Washington. However, in December 1776, Lee was captured by the British and held for more than a year, until a prisoner exchange could be arranged; thus, by the time Lee returned to the Continental army, the army had changed, and the opinion of the men along with it. Several major victories had been won without his help, and his behavior continued to alienate those around him, leading to a continued fall from favor.
Ultimately, his downfall came at the Battle of Monmouth. Lee was forced to retreat, when faced with a combination of a stronger British force and much disorder among his own men, and this led to a famous (or infamous) confrontation with Washington on the battlefield. Though, according to Papas, Lee was actually apparently in the right, his stubborn and truculent behavior and the perceived need to protect Washington’s credibility combined at his court-martial, leading to his conviction and a one-year removal from the army. Later, Congress voted to make his removal permanent, and though Lee made many attempts to vindicate himself, none were notably successful. Ultimately, Lee did not live with his disgrace for long; in 1782, he died, apparently of tuberculosis.
Renegade Revolutionary ends there, with the death (and, in large part, the forgetting) of Lee. While certainly a powerful narrative choice, it leaves much unsaid; particularly in parts 3 and 4, the necessities of describing events take precedence over analysis of Lee’s ideals and arguments, which are, after all, much of what made him “revolutionary.” The majority of Papas’s description of these topics comes in the first half of the book, as he describes Lee’s personal and philosophical development. Many of Lee’s beliefs—for example, the role of women, or his opposition to slavery while owning two slaves—receive short shrift indeed, considerably more so than the book’s introduction might lead a reader to expect, and one wishes that Papas had delved deeper into these topics, perhaps in a conclusion chapter. Still, the arrangement of the book and its already-considerable size would have made an extended treatment of Lee’s ideals and theories difficult and unwieldy, and maybe such individual topics would be best dealt with separately. Renegade Revolutionary is, after all, a portrait; perhaps extended analysis, even if practicable, would have been out of place, and detracted from the sharpness of the image.
Nevertheless, it is a powerful book, and Lee is described at his best and worst, his most visionary and his most foolish. Papas uses quotations to great effect, allowing us to hear Lee in his own words and, thus, get an idea of his character: eloquent in philosophy and diatribe alike, and able to make the reader laugh, think, sympathize, or nod in agreement. Additionally, Papas, though clearly having great respect for his subject, does not avoid or excuse his considerable (and ultimately insurmountable) flaws. Nor does he give one-sided descriptions of others: for example, Papas describes Washington as politically savvy and diplomatic, though able to be pushed to the point of losing his temper, as he did at Monmouth. In all, the people described in Renegade Revolutionary are precisely that: people, and people who sometimes strike the reader with a keen sense of recognition; Lee, for example, expresses a perfectly recognizable anger when a love interest only wants to be his friend, and writes of his beloved dogs in terms any contemporary pet lover would readily echo. Thus, Papas presents a nuanced and interesting biography not only of a Revolutionary War general but also of a man, and Renegade Revolutionary is invaluable for including and integrating both.
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Jennifer L. Paxton. Review of Papas, Phillip, Renegade Revolutionary: The Life of General Charles Lee.
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