Washington and Franklin: Teamwork that made the new nation work

Walter Isaacson

THE WASHINGTON POST – When George Washington arrived in Philadelphia in 1787 to attend the Constitutional Convention, his first ceremonial visit was to the newly expanded home of Benjamin Franklin. In his joint biography of the men he called “the two most celebrated heroes” and “the two indispensable authors of American independence,” historian Edward J Larson speculatesd that Washington walked rather than rode in his carriage from the house where he stayed, because riding would have entailed bringing his enslaved coachman and groom into the courtyard of the man who months earlier became president of the Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

As America’s founding shows, leadership requires collaboration. Franklin and Washington were the two founders best at forging teams. Franklin wrote an autobiography around the theme of how to win friends and influence people, and Washington won a revolution by doing so. They each made more friends than rivals, unlike Hamilton and Jefferson and Adams.

Larson laudably tried to counter the tendency of historians, especially biographers, to focus on individuals rather than teams. There have, of course, been many notable exceptions, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and The Bully Pulpit, and Tom Chaffin’s recent Revolutionary Brothers about Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. In Franklin & Washington, Larson’s approach was to create not a buddy narrative but instead a leadership study showing how two different personalities forged a partnership. “To explore their historic collaboration, this book traces their shared history in a dual biography that looks for overlaps and stresses connections,” he wrote.

One problem that Larson admittedly faced was that Franklin and the 25-years-younger Washington had a lot of mutual respect, but they rarely spent time together. Although they used words like “respect” and “esteem” and even “veneration” when they signed their letters to each other, the contents were usually business-like rather than personal. There was no evidence that Franklin ever deeply engaged with Washington intellectually (as he did with Joseph Priestley) or emotionally (as he did with fellow printer William Strahan). So try as he may, Larson produced a book that was not as much a tale of teamwork and friendship but instead two well-written and interesting biographical narratives that occasionally intertwined.

There were three great projects that Franklin and Washington worked on together, or at least in parallel. The first was in forging a unified army out of a ragtag collection of state militias. The Continental Congress sent Franklin in 1775 to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he stayed with Washington and “produced the framework for a new Continental Army”. They had one area of disagreement: Washington insisted that his army not include any slaves or free blacks, even those who had been serving in the militias.

Their second great dual endeavour was one they worked on from afar, with little coordination. As envoy in France, Franklin wrote letters of recommendation for European officers seeking commissions, secured loans and other military funding, and enlisted the French navy and army in helping the colonial cause. After a while, Washington felt inundated and annoyed by all the letters of recommendation, but they did produce for him Count Pulaski, Baron von Steuben and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Their third endeavour together was serving as the two lions at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. There the main traits they shared proved invaluable. Both believed the fledgling nation needed to become a strong national union rather than a mere confederation of states. They were also brave enough to believe in compromise. “The business of the Convention should be conducted with moderation, candour and fairness,” Washington said, and Franklin capped the contribution with a speech in favour of the compromises made. “The older I grow,” he said (he was 81), “the more apt I am to doubt my own judgement, and to pay more respect to the judgement of others”. They transcended, in what should be a model for today, partisan bitterness and rage. As one member said of Franklin, “His presence and advice, like oil on troubled waters, have composed the contending waves of faction.”

Great leadership teams generally are not composed of people with matching personalities. They are forged by people who bring different strengths and traits to the table. America’s founding needed people who were brilliant, such as Jefferson and James Madison, and those who were passionate, such as John Adams and Samuel Adams. Likewise, as Larson showed, Franklin and Washington.