Nathanael Greene & the Formation of the American Republic

Encouragement and Disillusionment

George Washington and Nathanael Greene were the only patriot generals who served the entire length of the Revolutionary War. With liberty finally secure, Nathanael settled in Georgia with his wife Caty. The country he had fought for was finally free, but some of his expectations for the new nation were to be disappointed.

Greene was encouraged by several aspects of the new republic he helped create. He was encouraged by civilian control of the military.  During the war, he exploded with anger upon hearing rumors that General Philip Schuyler was to become President of Congress while holding his commission.  He wrote to John Adams, saying “No free people ought to admit a junction of the Civil and the Military.”22  He was also encouraged by policies of reconciliation with Tories.  Although he did not bother to hide his contempt for loyalists, saying “If there is not public spirit enough in the people to defend their liberties, they well deserve to be slaves,” he urged reconciliation as a method of avoiding more bloodshed.23  Nathanael had much to be happy for, but he was still discouraged by the failure of the American Revolution to forge a national identity and proscribe slavery.

During his service in the Continental Army, Nathanael became a nationalist.  He recognized early in the war that this would be a national struggle.  In one of his first actions as a general, he put his country first, submitting his Rhode Island troops to the control of Massachusetts’ Artemas Ward, the default commander of patriot forces.  Later, upon hearing a rumor that Rhode Island’s governor was recruiting militiamen rather than Continentals, Greene sent a blistering letter to Governor Cooke.  His stint as Quartermaster General solidified his desire for a strong central government.  He was convinced that finding and transporting supplies would be more efficient if handled by a Congress with the ability to tax, rather than individual states.  This belief would have likely led Nathanael to the Federalist camp in the fight for the Constitution had Nathanael not died from heat stroke in 1786.24

Nathanael Greene’s beliefs concerning African-Americans remain a paradox. Greene was no supporter of abolition, but various actions throughout the war showed an open-mindedness in Greene that was not found in many others.  In 1778, one of his cousins, Colonel Christopher Greene, and his protégé, Sammy Ward, raised an all-black regiment in Rhode Island.  As Golway mentions, although Greene did not participate in the venture, the actions of his close associates suggests he was more open-minded than others.25  Later in the war, Greene suggested the enlistment of blacks in South Carolina to fill his emptying ranks. This, however, becomes all the more interesting after a debt-ridden Nathanael Greene turned to slavery to relieve himself of his financial burdens.  Although he continued to hold slaves, he wrote that he desired the destruction of the slave trade and the establishment of slavery.26

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