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Nation's father had tough time

FALLS VILLAGE — Local historian Tom Key began his lecture on George Washington’s opponents with a warning to the audience: “I will be talking about many of our founding fathers, the founders that put this country together, and I will be saying probably some derogatory things about them.”

His talk was on “George Washington’s Patriot Enemies,” and it was the first installment of the Tuesdays at Six talks for this summer.

In his one-hour lecture, Key proceeded to skewer the popular notion that the American colonies were resolutely united behind Washington’s leadership of the revolutionary armies. As Key noted, there were many different factions seeking to replace Washington, but circumstance ultimately allowed him to prevail and forge a nation.

The talk, organized by the Falls Village-Canaan Historical Society, was held at the South Canaan Meeting House on the evening of June 16. More than 70 people, mostly senior citizens, sat in wooden pews in the converted church to listen to Key.

The focus of the lecture was on the winter of 1777-78, when Washington quartered his troops at Valley Forge, Pa., and his overall leadership was most vulnerable.  Key noted that in the months leading up to this period, Washington had not been particularly successful on the battlefield, with losses at Long Island, Fort Lee, Fort Washington and White Plains.

These early setbacks, combined with military successes elsewhere by other generals, left Washington open to attacks from several sides, including New Englanders, True Whigs, Quakers, politicians, and even officers in his own army.

“This is when George Washington had to face his critics,” said Key.

Many citizens in Pennsylvania wanted Washington to attack the British troops in Philadelphia, believing that he had more than double their numbers, when in fact the British troops outnumbered the rebel army in equal numbers. Washington’s strategy was much more appropriately suited, Key said, to a revolutionary force in resistance.

“The one thing that a rebel army has to do is not win battles, it’s to exist,” said Key, “and that’s what Washington understood.”

Key noted several famous historical figures who voiced their displeasure with Washington during this time, including John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Horatio Gates, a highly successful general who many felt should replace Washington.

Eventually, after surviving the winter, Washington was able to defuse the criticism from these various factions, who were defeated by circumstances that included military defeats, duels and the persuasive power of Washington’s supporters.

Audience members praised Key for his insight and entertaining delivery.

“He was very interesting and knowledgeable,” said Luann Zbinden of Goshen. “He offered a different perspective from what we usually think.”

Event organizers were also pleased with the outcome of the event. “It’s nice to see some new faces,” said Cheryl Aeschliman of Falls Village. Aeschliman noted that the turnout for the talk was larger than average.

Key said afterward that he felt the talk had gone well and that he was able to communicate the most important ideas.

“We always think that our founders were a group of like-minded men,” said Key. “That wasn’t what happened.”

The lecture June 30 will feature forester Starling Childs, who will speak about the Great Mountain Forest. The talks are held each Tuesday in summer at 6  p.m.  at the South Canaan Meeting House, located at the junction of routes 7 and 63 in Falls Village. Admission is free but donations are welcomed.

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