Fair Warning: Before reading any further, you may want to retreat to your safe space, and remember to bring along your 101 Mandalas coloring book.
Here we go: Seventy percent of George Washington’s first cabinet were military men. And let’s not forget that Washington had served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, so if we include him in our calculations, then 80 percent of the first presidential cabinet in the history of the United States was comprised of men with military experience. Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State, was the sole civilian.
Washington hand-picked every member of his cabinet. For Secretary of the Treasury, he chose Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had been born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. He was illegitimate. John Adams, who detested Hamilton, once described him as the “bastard brat of a Scottish peddler.” A nasty assessment that was nonetheless true. We don’t know who Hamilton’s father was, and his mother died while Hamilton was still a boy. In spite of these setbacks, he made his way to America, where he became an ardent supporter of American independence. When the Revolution began in 1775, Hamilton joined a militia company. At age 22 he was an artillery officer; that is how he met Washington.
General Nathaniel Greene urged Washington to invite the young man to join his staff. Hamilton, Greene said, had a lot to recommend him: he had military experience, he was highly intelligent, and he was fluent in several languages. Washington had taken a shine to the young man, so he took him on as an aide-de-camp. Hamilton had become, as the good people at Mount Vernon put it, “a member of Washington’s military family.”
Throughout the war, Hamilton chafed to get back on the battlefield, but Washington held him back. He would not put such a valuable young man at risk. Finally, at the Battle of Yorktown, Washington let Hamilton go into combat. Hamilton proved himself, leading a heroic — and successful — charge against the last British redoubt outside the town.
For the post of Attorney General, Washington chose Edmund Randolph. Socially, Randolph stood at the opposite end of the spectrum from Alexander Hamilton. He was a member of one of the wealthiest, most distinguished families in Virginia. He was a champion of American independence, a point of view that put him at odds with his father, a committed Loyalist. When war broke out, Edmund’s father packed up and moved to England.
Randolph had no military training, but he was eager to serve. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry wrote to Washington, recommending Randolph and asking the commander to take the 22-year-old patriot under his wing and give him some experience of the military. Washington agreed, and Randolph joined Hamilton as one of the general’s as aides-de-camp. Randolph’s military career did not last long. Toward the end of 1775, his uncle died and Randolph was called home to settle his uncle’s estate and take over management of the Randolph fortune.
Henry Knox was America’s first Secretary of War (today we call the office Secretary of Defense). He was from Boston, the son of Scots-Irish immigrants. He made his living as a bookbinder, but in his spare moments he studied engineering and military tactics. When the Revolution began in April, 1775, Knox enlisted. He designed an artillery rampart in Roxbury, which Washington inspected and admired. Soon thereafter Washington named Knox his chief of artillery.
Knox’s trade may have been bookbinding, but he was a natural military man. The British had occupied Boston, and Washington wanted them out. The Americans had mounted a siege shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, but to be honest, the Minute Men were not much a threat. That is when Knox suggested to Washington that they could get the British out of town much quicker if they had artillery. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys had just seized Fort Ticonderoga on the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York. Washington ordered Knox to set out at once and bring back all the ordinance from Ticonderoga.
At the fort Knox found 59 cannons and mortars, plus an ample supply of gunpowder — exactly what the Americans needed to pound the British and drive them out of Boston. In the meantime, winter had overtaken the expedition. Undeterred, Knox assembled 80 teams of oxen, built ice sledges for the smaller guns and casks of gunpowder, and hauled the lot back to Boston. Washington was delighted. For seven weeks the Ticonderoga artillery bombarded British positions, until at last, on St. Patrick’s Day, 1776, the British retreated to their ships and sailed for Nova Scotia.
And that is only one of General Knox’s contributions to the Revolution. He also made all the arrangements for Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and he took charge of the placement of the artillery outside Yorktown.
Even the first Postmaster General, Samuel Osgood, was a military man. At the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he led a company of local militia, and as the British ran back to Boston, Osgood and his men went in pursuit, picking off the redcoats with sniper fire. During the Siege of Boston, Osgood was given the rank of Major. When he joined the staff of General Artemas Ward — the man who fortified Bunker Hill — he was promoted to Colonel.
The hand-wringing of the left over the generals Trump has appointed or is considering for appointment to national security positions his cabinet is absurd. In the first place, we are at war, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and essentially in Syria. Even more compelling is that we are at war with the Islamic State, arguably the most insidious enemy we have ever faced, a hateful, hate-filled organization that sinks terrorism to new depths. They aren’t a conventional army that limits its activities to the battlefields of the Middle East. Rather, their “soldiers” have fanned out across the globe, killing God only knows how many civilians, including Americans here in America. In this crisis, if the choice comes down an Ivy League academic who specializes in civilian-military relations and a general, give me the general everyday.
Military men have leadership skills. They know how to get a job done. They are unswervingly loyal. And they have been defending the American people and our Constitution for 227 years. In all that time we’ve never had a military coup. No junta has ever taken over the White House. Even George Washington’s cabinet, top heavy as it was with veterans of the military, did their jobs, went home to their families, and passed the Republic, intact, to the next administration. If history is any indication, our liberties are not in danger, no matter how many generals serve on President-elect’s Trump’s cabinet.