Every American child learns about the turning point of the Revolutionary War. On this day in 1778 Baron von Steuben arrived in Valley Forge. He is the well dressed officer brandishing his sword at the raggedy line of volunteers in the famous painting by E.A.Abbey. The story goes along the lines that the Continental army was defeated and broken by the British. They moved to winter quarters in Valley Forge where they were drilled by von Steuben. The renewed and re-invigorated army emerged and went on to defeat the British and win Independence for the U.S.A.
What is less well known is von Steuben’s role as an administrator, in particular as a quartermaster general. What he found was a complete lack of documentation supporting a culture of widespread corruption, fraud, graft and war-profiteering. By implementing proper controls he was able to prevent the theft of thousands of muskets, which went on to participate in the work of killing redcoats.
He also implemented the camp management standards that became the norm for the US Army for decades to come. Proper planning of military camps is vital to eliminate or reduce the spread of disease and pests. Logical placement of latrine facilities means they do not foul drinking water or flood eating and sleeping areas. Placement of kitchens at the opposite end of the camp from latrines. Defined areas for slaughter and butchery and so on.
Von Steuben had very little English. His orders were translated nightly into French by his secretary, Du Ponceau. Washington’s secretary then translated the French to English for distribution to the troops.
The title of this post was chosen carefully. Nations like to paint their founding fathers as saintly figures, patriots who put their lives on the line for high ideals. Many Americans see the creation of their nation as a pure and idealistic departure from the old world. A clean fresh start, wiping the dirt of the old world off their shiny new capitalist shoes. So the role of von Steuben, an old world relic cleaning up a filthy military camp and a corrupt administration does not sit comfortably into the creation myth of America.
The founding fathers of the U.S.A. were wealthy aristocrats who wanted to preserve the class structures of the old world. They created the USA in the image of Britain, but replaced a Monarchy with a Presidency. When they declared that all men are created equal they chose to specifically exclude slaves. Implicitly they really meant that all white Anglo-Saxon Protestant males were created equal, but some are more equal than others. The USA was born as a corrupt model, full of old world errors and compromises. But a model with one fundamentally important difference – the means to change. The most important thing about the US Constitution is not the purity of the article itself, but the ability to amend it over time, to improve it, to make it better.
Like the camp and the men in Valley Forge the USA has the ability to make itself better. All it needs are leaders who value the common good over the interests of the 1%.