Tuesday, February 02, 2010

General Washington on Gays in the Military

If history is any indication, General George Washington would not be pleased with the current rush to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in America's armed forces. But it seems no one in the Obama administration is listening.

Following the lead of President Barack Obama, America's top two Defense Department officials called today for an end to the military's ban on open homosexual conduct. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said that it was time to allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the United States armed services.

General George Washington, America's first military leader, disagreed. It would have been interesting to have General Washington present for the same hearing. I wonder if Congress would even listen to him, though, given the growing momentum for change.

Washington's position on gays serving openly in the military was seen in March 1778, with the case of Lieutenant Frederick Gotthold Enslin. Enslin was courtmartialed for "attempting to commit sodomy, with John Monhort a soldier" and "for Perjury in swearing to false Accounts."

In a report dictated apparently by Washington and copied out by his staff, the general's feelings are made clear. "His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves the sentence and with Abhorrence and Detestation of such Infamous Crimes orders Lieutt. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning..."

While some may argue that Washington's primary concern was with Lieutenant Enslin's aggressiveness or breach of protocol, it's more likely that the Continental Army Commander-in-Chief found Enslin's homosexual conduct itself to be "detestable" and a danger to unit morale and cohesion.

Does this make General Washington homophobic? Was our nation's first general an intolerant bigot?

While it would appear that the current policy's days are numbered and that change is indeed coming, I think it would be a mistake to dismiss Washington too quickly. Washington was a man of his times, but we make a grave error if we assume that Washington's times were, in all respects, inferior to our own.

It's true that the United States has enjoyed progress since the late 1700s on many fronts, including the rights and privileges of women and racial minorities. In those areas, we should recognize progress. And, frankly, had Washington lived through all the years of American history, a very compelling argument could be made that he would've evolved and grown WITH the country in terms of his attitudes on racial and gender equality. Washington, after all, changed his views on race in the course of his own life. His trajectory was clearly in the direction of ending slavery and embracing the rights of African Americans.

But the issue of gays in the military is somewhat different. Washington didn't order Enslin's dismissal, because he saw the man has being socially or genetically inferior. He dismissed Enslin, because of the man's actions and how those actions affected the army as a whole. What's more, for Washington, there was something moral at stake. This wasn't a case of social elitism. For Washington, it was a matter of proper conduct and moral behavior.

Indeed, it was Washington who issued another order, forbidding cursing in the Continental Army and challenging his men to conduct themselves as "Christian soldiers." For Washington, moral conduct was fundamental to the success and value of the army. A good soldier was an effective soldier, and a good army was a powerful army. When you allow immorality into the army, you poison its cohesion and effectiveness. That appears to have been Washington's perspective. And that is what lay at the root of his dismissing Enslin.

Lest you think I'm overplaying Washington's sense of morality, recall that, as President, he echoed a similar theme in his Farewell Address. In that speech (published and not delivered), Washington declared that "religion and morality" were "indispensable supports to political prosperity."

I understand that the issue of gays serving openly in the armed forces is a very sensitive and highly emotional one. And I know that, for some, it's difficult to see it as anything but a matter of rights. Nevertheless, I think we should be cautious, before we jettison the wisdom and example of our nation's first (and arguably noblest) military leader.

31 comments:

Lynn said...

Even if you'd like to look past the idea of rights (which is quite absurd when discussing the American Revolution), your need to discuss Washington's morality is an unnecessary anachronism. You are attempting to use morality in the argument, and I would like you to define "moral." Not only is there no cohesive definition of morality at the founding era, there is none today. Morality is too often tied to institutional religion, which in fact is a man-made creation; it is cultural and social, it is constructed and it is malleable. That is why gays in the military can be openly accepted in other nations and have absolutely no negative consequences. Morality is NOT a solid argument.
In addition, trying to conclude that Washington would have agreed with women's rights and racial equality is also a mistake that any good historian would avoid. You do NOT know how the founders would have reacted to anything outside of their time any more than we know how we would react in their time. As is said, the past is a foreign land. We are merely visitors. To drag historical figures into current debate is a useless, partisan activity. As a scholar of the American Revolution and the early national period, I find it offensive.

Daniel said...

I have two thoughts:

First, Washington dismissed the soldier for homosexual conduct. As you say - for his actions. My understanding is that homosexual conduct (like any sexual conduct) in the ranks will still be punished. Is that correct? The change is that admitted homosexuals will be allowed to serve in the military, not that they will be allowed to engage in homosexual conduct while serving. You're comparing apples to oranges, I think.

Second - you seem to suggest that it is Washington's morality that we should be considering. I agree. I think it's precisely his morality that would likely lead him to embrace the repeal of DADT as surely as it would lead him to embrace the Civil Rights movement, had he lived through that period of American history. In other words, I find it odd that you feature his morality so prominently - that seems to hurt your case, not help it.

Brian Tubbs said...

@Lynn - I disagree that the past is a foreign land that we have little chance of connecting with. There is much that we can learn from the past.

That said, I'm only urging caution here with respect to how the military adjusts its policy on gays and lesbians. A change of some kind is probably necessary.

Brian Tubbs said...

@Daniel - I agree that Washington's focus was on conduct more than on orientation. I doubt Washington would've paid a second thought to Enslin's orientation had there simply been rumors, accusations, etc.

My point is simply that we should consider Washington's wisdom on the need for morality in the military culture, before proceeding to make changes in a policy like this. But I concede that change is coming.

Brian Tubbs said...

@ Lynn - You write: "You do NOT know how the founders would have reacted to anything outside of their time any more than we know how we would react in their time."

I agree. I don't know. And in my article, I didn't say that I did know. All I said was that a good argument could be made that Washington would've embraced racial and gender equality had he lived the length of American history. It's purely speculative, but there is some evidence, given the known trajectory of Washington's views DURING his life.

Lynn said...

@Brian I certainly agree that we can learn from the past. However, it is when we take the past out of context and judge it/use it based on current social/cultural norms that history becomes distorted. As we are all a product of our historical time and place, we cannot accurately judge historical figures outside of their own context; that is unfair to the subject of inquiry as well as to the researcher.

Brian Tubbs said...

@Lynn - One last point....the morality argument cuts both ways. You're essentially arguing that we can't take moral lessons from the past and apply them to today, because a) morality is cultural, social, and malleable, and b) the people of the past were limited by their time and can't be made to comment credibly on the future.

Okay, if that's true, then we cannot credibly comment on their actions either, from a moral standpoint. We should therefore not be permitted to make any moral judgments whatsoever (if your argument is correct, that is) with regards to their conduct, attitudes, etc. on women, slaves, homosexuals, Native Americans, etc.

For one thing, if they are limited by their times, then we are also limited by ours and thus have no credible standing to judge the past. And second, our morality (which would cause us to support racial and gender equality, as two examples) is also (per your reasoning) socially constructed and malleable. Thus, it carries no more weight than THEIR morality.

For the record, I disagree with your argument. I think your position is logically flawed, but if you're right, then we have no credible standard with which to evaluate figures from the past, be they George Washington or Adolf Hitler.

Lynn said...

@Brian - Great point! What you say is absolutely true, particularly from the perspective of a good historian. We can NOT judge the people of the past. A good scholar on slavery does not bemoan the fact that people were treated horribly and that it was a heartbreaking institution (although it is true). Historians focus on the social, cultural, intellectual causes and effects of slavery; the economic impact, the human impact. A good historian would never judge a slaveholder by today's standards. BAD history. In fact, any history in which we try to inject any form of our so-called "morality" is poor.

Of course our morality is socially constructed! There is no one morality. Some people believe that allowing two gay people to marry is immoral. Others believe that not allowing these people to marry is immoral. There is no one consensus. It is very malleable and based on our personal beliefs, how we were raised, and our social experiences.

I am looking at this as a trained historian. We cannot judge the past. We can learn from it objectively.

Brad Hart said...

The case of Lt. Enslin is clearly based on his ACTIONS and not his orientation, as everyone here seems to point out. One could argue that Washington didn't care what a soldier's orientation was so long as he didn't engage in sexual acts. The case of von Steuben seems to support this.

I'm not one to engage in the debate over gays in the military (Brian is much braver than I).

Brian Tubbs said...

Lynn, our exchange has been helpful. In my initial post, I didn't mean to imply a superficial argument along the lines of..."George Washington opposed gays in the military, therefore so should we." I'm sorry if it was clumsily worded and that it may have come across that way.

I simply meant to say that we should study Washington's handling of the Enslin case and see if there are any applicable or worthy insights, lessons, principles that we can apply to today's situation. I think such an analysis of the past is important before changing current policy. And I would apply that to just about any situation or policy.

Brian Tubbs said...

As for the policy itself, one aspect that I think needs to be addressed is privacy. As a former infantryman, I would've been very uncomfortable sharing a foxhole (or 'fighting position' as we called them) with either a heterosexual female or a homosexual male.

In fact, during my chaplain candidate training (I'm now out of the program), we were told that chaplains usually share a tent with their chaplain assistant (when in the field). And, in some cases, the chaplain candidate and chaplain may not be of the same gender. Well, several of us in the training were not comfortable with that, because...well...we're pastors. I don't want to share a tent with a woman in the field - not as a married man!

This is where morality comes in and where privacy comes in. Where personal comfort comes in. And all this does affect unit cohesion.

These are valid concerns. They deserve to be respectfully discussed. It's a shame, though, that anyone who raises any objections or concerns about repealing DADT is branded a bigot or a homophobe. (Thankfully, that's not happened HERE, but it happens a lot in our society).

Lynn said...

Thank you for your insights and sharing your personal experiences. In our society we do rush to judge too quickly ("you are a homophobe" or "homosexuality is immoral"); exchanges such as this help to explore issues without slinging personal insults. As I look at this issue as a historian, you look at it from personal experience. Both are obviously quite helpful.

franceshunter said...

Seems to me Washington was mighty selective. He put up with Baron von Steuben, after all.

Helfyre said...

Lynn morality can be objectively determined through the use of reason and the Natural law which allows human beings to deduct what is or is not moral by looking at function and not form. Institutional religion need not come into play at any point in the discussion.
Being offended is a choice. Indulge yourself if you so choose.
Prof.Helen McCaffrey

Anonymous said...

My thought or breakdown here bring up questions for me:

1. If Enslin was drummed out, but not Monhort, then was Monhort accosted by Enslin?

2. If Enslin was also drummed out on perjury charges, was it simply his word against Monhort?

3. Did Washington being a Godly man did have Enslin drummed out more likely because he may have tried to accost Monhort? And if so, then could Washington if he were against gays openly serving in the military simply be so to avoid such things? And if so, then how different or similar is it to women being harassed or even raped by male counterparts in the military today?

I guess most of all I would want to know but could likely not be able to be answered is was Monhort gay and lied on Enslin to save himself or was he indeed simply accosted? Either way, Enslin did know better. Just wondering also where specifically Washington was coming from. Not so much based on assumption but fact.

Very good discussion. Also, never knew this issue was being dealt with in some form for centuries.

Anonymous said...

George Washington hired an out and proud gay man to train our troops.

Anonymous said...

Washington was British. He also owned slaves and probably raped his fair share of them. Really? You're going to go back 200+ years to find justification for discrimination?

Anonymous said...

as usual the pro homo agenda crowd doesnt know the facts from their foreheads. Washington didnt just find the breach of conduct an affront he found THE VERY IDEA OF HOMOSEXUALITY ITSELF DEPLORABLE. read the mans condemnations, they go far beyond an intent to ebforce military protocil. Washingtons speeches indicate he was a man of great and true faith and as such he would have detested homosexuality to begin with period. furthermore to the people bringing up steuben as a farcical means of stating that GW was gay tolerant: steuben had been disgraced prior to his joining the american army because of his lifestyle being revealed; there is no evidence to support that Washington was aware of steubens lifestyle given that steubens would not want to go through the same humiliations as before. The founders hated homosexuality and would be against gays in the military gay marriages and open homosexuality and rightfully so!

Health Website said...
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Scott said...

I wonder how General Washington would have felt about women having the right to vote or women serving in Congress. I am sure as a product of his day he would have had interesting things to say about it.
I also wonder what his thoughts on having am African-American serve as President would have been.
I doubt he would have used morality to make the argument but I am fairly sure he would still be a man of his time on these subjects also.

Anonymous said...

You ever notice how gays and gay supporters always try to throw out the homophobe word. Fact is that a very small percent of people are gay and we are letting just a few loud mouth people set the direction of this country. They know it is wrong that is why they push so hard to make it legal. Legal or not, the majority of Americans will never accept you and your perverted acts. Keep trying though, keep pushing your views. The one thing I have learned from history is that it repeats. Read the history on this topic and you can see the future.

windstorm said...

We're all forgetting that that the "father of our country" may have had a flaming affair with Alexander Hamilton....Apparently George liked to be spanked by Alex--and Alex complied!! They were both into S and M. What a visual!! Dig deeper past the candy coated versions!

Viagra said...

I think it's great that the ban will be ended as we are all humans regardless of sexuality.

Prince Elijah J Shalis said...
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Elijah J Shalis said...
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Elijah J Shalis said...

I am thinking about doing a presentation on Gays in the Revolutionary War actually and will use these two examples.

EJS

Elijah J Shalis said...

Um actually Washington had no problem with gays in the military. Major General Von Steuben was openly gay and arrived in America with his two lovers. He is considered the Father of the Military and without him we would have lost the war. Von Steuben was being persecuted by the Catholic Church in France at the time and liked Franklin's notion of Separation of Church and State and fought for free during the War.

Washington was a devout Christian and got up early each morning to do devotions on his knees and knew of Von Steuben's sexuality.


Elijah J. Shalis
BA History & Poli Sci Albion College 2002
Cooley Law School 2003, 2006-2008
Member of The Sons of the American Revolution- Descendant of Vice Major Nathan Durkee, Miles Riggs, and Jesse Wheeler
Member of The General Society of the War of 1812
Openly gay

Phil, Puyallup, WA said...

My partner just retired from the US Army after 20 years of brave, dedicated, selfless service.

To suggest Gay & Lesbian Service Members don't serve with courage & professionalism is both innacurate & offensive.

Brian Tubbs said...

For the record, I believe many men and women with same-sex orientation have served honorably in the United States armed forces over the years. My article wasn't meant, in any way, to convey otherwise.

I would simply argue that, if it's wrong to introduce soldiers of opposite gender into tight quarters together out of concern for sexual tension, privacy, etc., then the same would logically apply to people with same-sex attraction. But it would seem that these concerns are increasingly "old-fashioned."

This doesn't take away from the bravery, courage, dedication, and honor of anyone serving in the military, regardless of gender or orientation. I'm simply raising a point about sexual boundaries and privacy that America, for many decades, recognized. Those values are apparently changing, however.

Brian Tubbs said...

To address some of the ridiculous points made in this thread...there is absolutely NO evidence that Washington and Hamilton had some kind of homosexual relationship, nor is there a shred of evidence that Washington raped his slaves. This is baseless slander, pure and simple.

Anonymous said...

I suggest you read your history more closely and look at Friedrich Von Steuben, and his contributions and role as George Washingtons chief of staff in the final years of the war. It has been historically noted that Steuben was a gay man