The Spoils of War

Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents


By Andrew Cockburn

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Two eminent political scientists show that America’s great conflicts, from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, were fought not for ideals, or even geopolitical strategy, but for the individual gain of the presidents who waged them.

It’s striking how many of the presidents Americans venerate-Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy, to name a few-oversaw some of the republic’s bloodiest years. Perhaps they were driven by the needs of the American people and the nation. Or maybe they were just looking out for themselves.

This revealing and entertaining book puts some of America’s greatest leaders under the microscope, showing how their calls for war, usually remembered as brave and noble, were in fact selfish and convenient. In each case, our presidents chose personal gain over national interest while loudly evoking justice and freedom. The result is an eye-opening retelling of American history, and a call for reforms that may make the future better.

Bueno de Mesquita and Smith demonstrate in compelling fashion that wars, even bloody and noble ones, are not primarily motivated by democracy or freedom or the sanctity of human life. When our presidents risk the lives of brave young soldiers, they do it for themselves.


Chapter 1

George Washington’s Wars: In Pursuit of Life, Liberty and . . . Avarice!

                What Inducements have Men to explore uninhabited Wilds but the prospect of getting good Lands?

—George Washington

ON JULY 4, 1776, FIFTY-SIX AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARIES DECLARED independence from Britain’s “absolute Tyranny over these States.” In doing so, they formally launched the founding war of the United States. They did so against tremendous odds. Their British adversary was arguably the greatest power in the world. Britain’s population (estimated at 6.4 million in 1770) was approximately three times the size of the colonial population (estimated at 2.15 million in 1770). At the time of the revolution, Britain’s per capita income in today’s dollars was roughly equivalent to $1,540, second only to the Netherlands. The comparable figure for the colonies was only $990.1 Britain had unsurpassed naval strength. The colonists had no navy. Britain had a well-drilled, well-trained, and combat-experienced military leadership as well as the resources to recruit, provision, and pay a standing army. The colonists had irregular militias with no professional military training and they rarely had funds to maintain soldiers in the field. Even the commander in chief of the Continental Army, George Washington, had no formal military training and limited military experience. These few men and their supporters must have been most profoundly aggrieved, believing that there was no other path open to them to protect and improve their future than to fight such a desperate war against so great an adversary.2

With hindsight we know the War for Independence turned out well for the colonists, although only after long years of suffering and deprivation. Beginning with the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and, in 1775, the Battles of Lexington and Concord, it did not end until 1783. Tallies of American fatalities vary, with twenty-five thousand dead from combat and war-related exposure to disease being a modest estimate.3 Some calculate the death toll ran to almost three times this. The revolution stands out as unusual on almost every front. Most wars last months. The length of the American War for Independence surpassed that of either of the two World Wars and was about equal to that of the Vietnam War. Relative to population size, it was one of America’s deadliest fights. It was expected to be—and proved to be—a long, costly, and difficult war entered into as a last resort and with significant long-term consequences. The revolution’s importance to American history is so far reaching that it demands our attention. Our revisionist attention it shall get.

After more than two centuries in which details of the war have been recounted to each new generation, average Americans are imbued with confidence that they know the particulars behind the tyranny of Britain’s King George III (1738–1820) and the courage and integrity of the founding fathers in freeing the colonies to follow a new and remarkably successful form of government, one that has become an exemplar for much of the world.

The standard accounts of the War for Independence as a great struggle between colonists and Britain, endowed as they are with many important but only partial truths, miss an appreciation of critical elements that turn our attention from the founding fathers’ heroism to their prosaic pursuit of their own personal interests. That they were self-interested should not surprise us—who isn’t? Self-interest is, after all, a crucial ingredient in innovation, whether in the arts, the sciences, or government. That they were demonstrably self-interested should not detract from their remarkable ideas and accomplishments. However, America’s founders were real, flesh-and-blood aristocrats with, to borrow again from William Shakespeare, all the ills that flesh and blood is heir to. They were hardly the sort of people one stereotypically thinks of as revolutionaries. They were not political or social outcasts, the downtrodden yearning to be free; they were not the religiously oppressed seeking freedom of conscience; nor were they men craving government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” They were, in fact, exceptionally rich and influential men: community leaders and political figures elected to the governing bodies of their colonial governments—the colonial elite, the privileged few in a rising society. As such, for the most part they disdained the idea of democracy, which was, as they saw it, government by the mob. In a time and place of great opportunities and great ambition for advancement, these were men hungry to secure their own substantial fame and fortune.

If today we were to observe a comparably small group of enormously wealthy and powerful men conspiring to overthrow their government, we would refer to them suspiciously, maybe even derisively, as oligarchs. We would surely wonder at how they were using their personal power and wealth for their own personal gain and how that affected everyone else. That we do not probe these concerns when assessing the founding fathers means that we risk glossing over their flaws and thereby constructing a distorted understanding of the first defining event in American history. It means misunderstanding what drives political elites to wage war. It perpetuates the mythology of war and revolution as a noble endeavor, the last resort of the righteous against the unrighteous. To begin to rectify the varnished account of American history, we will try to modify the general understanding of the causes of the American War for Independence.

To do so, we focus on two critical aspects of the conditions that produced the American Revolution: what the revolutionaries were after, and why they needed a war to achieve their objectives, as they explained unabashedly within the Declaration of Independence.

We will see that, in addition to possessing high ideals, the founders, or at least many of them, were keen to protect their personal wealth. For some signatories of the Declaration, such as Virginia’s Carter Braxton, this meant resisting war until its resistance had clearly become a politically losing cause. For others, such as the Lee brothers, Thomas Jefferson, and for many of the Declaration’s supporters, including George Washington, it meant having to rid themselves of two groups of people who threatened their fortune and their future prospects: the British and the Indians. They could get rid of neither without a revolution. Indeed, the immediate postrevolutionary history of the United States is a history of expulsion of the British followed by more than a century of war aimed at the expulsion or destruction of the sovereign Indian nations of North America.

George Washington: The Rise to Prominence

GEORGE WASHINGTONS IMPORTANCE HARDLY NEEDS COMMENT. LONG before July 4, 1776, and the declaration of war against Britain, he had achieved the status of an American hero. He first came to public attention after being sent into the Ohio Valley wilderness in December 1753 as a representative of England’s King George II (1683–1760). Serving in both a military and diplomatic capacity, Washington—then only twenty-one years old and with the rank of major in the Virginia militia—was to seek out the French on a mission designed to ensure their departure. The French were establishing forts, exploiting fur-trading opportunities, and forging ties with local Indian tribes. More to the point, they were asserting control over land that the British king claimed was his, a view Washington fully shared. He came to Fort Leboeuf (located in what is now Erie County, Pennsylvania), one of the French strongholds in the Ohio Valley, and there presented George II’s case for the withdrawal of the French to Captain Jacques Legardeur de Saint-Pierre. The captain, with the utmost politeness, assured Washington that he would pass the proposed withdrawal on to his commanding officer, the Marquis Duquesne. But he also made clear his view of the proposal Washington had conveyed: “As to the summons you send me to retire, I do not think myself obliged to obey it.”4 With this news in hand, Washington set out in the dead of winter on an arduous, life-threatening journey back to Williamsburg, then Virginia’s capital. Upon arriving, he wrote an impressively detailed account of his experience and of the French fortifications, including important military information about the number of canoes at the disposal of the French, the quantity of artillery they had, and other equipment with which the French and their Indian allies might assert control over territory. The account was widely published and attracted considerable attention to the young irregular military officer, giving him his first public exposure.

While much of the attention Washington got was flattering, not all of it was. He had not only been sent into the Ohio country on behalf of the English king, but also as an agent of the Ohio Company of Virginia—about which we will have much more to say. Many of his fellow Virginians suspected that he had simply concocted a story designed to advance the interests of the Ohio Company. In describing the reaction to his report, Washington wrote bitterly that “after I was sent out in December, 1753, and brought undoubted testimony even from themselves [i.e., the French] of their avowed design [to control the land in the Ohio Valley that was also the object of English ambitions], it was yet thought a fiction and a scheme to promote the interest of a private company, even by some who had a share in the government.”5

Washington’s fame—or infamy, depending on which side one was on—rose further, thanks to his leading, and often disastrous, part in the initiation of the French and Indian War just a short time later. A few months after his encounter at Fort Leboeuf, now having attained the age of twenty-two, Washington, elevated to the rank of lieutenant colonel, led about forty of his men overnight in heavy rain to attack a contingent of thirty-five French soldiers in the wilderness. Although his orders were to use force only defensively against the French, he instead initiated a military strike that ultimately killed ten, including French military commander Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. Jumonville did not die in the immediate engagement. Rather, he was taken prisoner and then assassinated, according to the French, by one of Washington’s Indian allies known as Half-King. Although there is controversy over the details, it is clear enough that from the French perspective the incident was an atrocity. As historian James Flexner notes, the French accused Washington “of murdering ambassadors. The Frenchmen, it turned out, had carried diplomatic credentials with instructions to find the English, express a desire for peace, but warn them off lands belonging to the king of France.”6 Washington, of course, did not know that Jumonville came in peace because he and his forty men fell on the French without warning.

Washington was dismissive of French claims to the Ohio country and viewed the outcome of what came to be known as the Jumonville Affair as a military triumph. So did many of his fellow Virginians. However, from a broader perspective it was a monumentally consequential diplomatic and political disaster. As Voltaire described the one-sided battle, “Such was the complication of political interests that a cannon shot [a gross exaggeration of the arms possessed and used by Washington’s troops and their Indian supporters] fired in America could give the signal that set Europe in a blaze.”7 Washington’s first drawing of blood, the one-sided fight led by the lieutenant colonel, was, in fact, the beginning of the French and Indian War and the much larger and deadlier Seven Years’ War. It was followed by other significant military engagements and some defeats, culminating slightly more than two decades later to his leading the Continental Army.

Throughout the French and Indian War, and indeed, ever after, despite his rising prominence as a soldier Washington was mindful of his own limitations as a commanding officer, although rightfully proud of his personal bravery in battle. Especially in later years as the press for revolution mounted, he was a man of measured temperament rather than a fiery revolutionary. Indeed, the young James Madison was highly critical of the Tidewater landed gentry, of which Washington was a part, because of their reluctance to fully embrace revolution. Washington’s reserved, cautious approach to the rising threat of war against England differed markedly from the bellicose views of such men as Madison and Patrick Henry. In Washington’s reluctance to plunge the country into war, he was probably more closely aligned with the views of the broader body politic.

The average colonist probably was filled with a mix of enthusiasm for the colonial cause and extreme foreboding in taking on so momentous an adversary as George III’s Britain. Washington was likely to have been filled with similar foreboding, albeit motivated by different considerations. If the war were lost, he contemplated establishing himself on his extensive lands in the wilderness, prepared to fight off the British in a fantasy that foreshadowed just such efforts by disaffected southerners following defeat in the Civil War.8 For Washington, the truly great problem was that defeat might cost him his enormous fortune, whereas a failure to fight seemed, under the king’s policies, nearly certain to do so.

George Washington’s Economic Ambition

WASHINGTON WAS HIS FATHERS FOURTH CHILD. HE WAS BORN IN 1732 into a comfortable, but not rich, propertied family. When his father died, eleven-year-old George inherited only a small portion of the approximately 5,000 or so acres his father owned. The great bulk of his father’s estate went to George’s beloved half brother Lawrence, who was nearly fifteen years older than him. The little Washington did inherit was managed by his mother (she would live a long life, surviving into his first term as president), who ran his inheritance into the ground. As a result, Washington started out in life with few resources and a deeply ingrained, lifelong attentiveness to counting every penny he spent. Born into moderate comfort, George Washington died one of the richest men in America—by one estimate, the fifty-ninth wealthiest man in all of American history.9 Yet despite his almost unimaginable wealth, he spent much of his life cash-poor. He sank almost everything he had into land acquisition and diverse business undertakings ranging from innovative farming to mills to fisheries to canal building. By the time he died, Washington owned about 60,000 acres of land encompassing tracts in Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia. Clearly he lived a life of remarkable accomplishment, achieved through his industriousness and skill. He benefited from good fortune in his brother’s connections, aggressiveness in his pursuit of wealth, and his own advantageous marriage.

In telling the political story behind his success and its ties to the American Revolution, we want to be emphatic that Washington was a man of his times and, as such, he pursued success as best as he could in the context of his times. We do not wish in the slightest to diminish the commendable life he lived. Indeed, we believe that his life is arguably the most remarkable and successful life lived by any American. This is not hyperbole; it is grounded in impressive evidence. In George Washington we have a man who was preeminent as an entrepreneur, a land developer, a devoted family man, a military man, a politician, a leader, and a nation builder. Who else can claim to have accomplished so much in so many fields with such long-lasting and beneficial consequences? Still, with the greatest respect for what he achieved, we do wish to move him from the pedestal on which his memory resides to the solid ground of reality, where he can be seen as a remarkable flesh-and-blood person who successfully exploited life’s opportunities.

George Washington was the least schooled of American presidents. He did not go formally beyond elementary education. His expectation of following his older brothers to England to continue his schooling was cut short by their father’s untimely death. Despite the lack of formal education, Washington was a studious man who read and worked hard to improve his ability to speak and write well and who relied on books to instruct him in practical matters, such as better ways to farm and, critically, in better ways to comprehend the military arts and sciences. Despite his great efforts, his lack of education in some regards made him stand out as a black sheep among his fellow revolutionaries. Some of the leading lights of his time were not shy to criticize his lack of education. John Adams, always jealous of the public affection bestowed on Washington, noted, “That Washington was not a scholar was certain. That he was too illiterate, unread, unlearned for his station and reputation is equally past dispute.”10 Still, Washington was ambitious in everything he did. Leaving school behind, he trained as a land surveyor, then a demanding occupation requiring both good skills in mathematics and in withstanding the trials of the wilderness. He was good at both.

The story of Washington’s many successes and many of his reasons for supporting revolution begin indirectly with the marriage of his brother Lawrence to Anne Fairfax. Anne was the daughter of William Fairfax who, in turn, served as a land agent for his powerful cousin, Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax. William Fairfax, a wealthy and influential man from an impeccable family, took a great liking to George Washington. Fairfax’s affection and family tie to Washington were manifested in opportunities for Washington while he was still in his teens. It was Fairfax, for instance, who gave Washington his first real opportunity to survey land. More crucially, because of his ties to Lawrence, whose own opportunities owed a great deal to his family tie to William Fairfax, George gained the chance to learn to be a military leader, as well as the opportunity to acquire land and familiarize himself with valuable tracts of land that he would gain ownership over in the future, thanks to his military service.

The Ohio Company and George Washington’s Prospects

GEORGES EARLY OPPORTUNITY FOR A MILITARY CAREER, BEGINNING when he was a scant twenty-one years old, derived from family ties. He was, as we saw, sent west over the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio Valley both to survey land and help oust the French. The territory west of the Alleghenies was, in the mid-eighteenth century, difficult to access, nearly impassible, and, consequently, of scant interest to most colonists. There were almost no English settlers. Instead, there were but a few scattered, thinly populated German settlements, as well as the French aspirations to control the area to which we have already referred.

The eighteenth-century Ohio Valley, which spans portions of today’s West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, had great untapped economic potential. Its land was fertile, well endowed with waterways and a temperate climate. If it could be settled by hard-working, productive farmers, it could become a great asset to whoever controlled it. What is more, there were navigable rivers that flowed together, providing the opportunity for large settlements. The Forks of the Ohio, in today’s Pittsburgh, was but one such example and one that was well known to George Washington as he was involved in its survey as well as in a great, unsuccessful battle against the French at Fort Duchesne, which they built at the Forks.

To those who had an eye for investment opportunities (such as Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and a great many other founding fathers), land in the American frontier, the hinterlands beyond the Alleghenies, was a great attraction. We should not be surprised to find that such gentlemen as had the interest and the means, either in money or in hard labor, to acquire and develop this land would challenge alternative settlers, be they French or Indian or anyone else who might impose restrictions on their own opportunity to do so. As we shall see, those like George Washington, who embraced revolution on the grounds that the king was restricting their opportunities for land acquisition, were making arguments very much aligned with their self-interest in accumulating a fortune, perhaps more so than with their concern for the king’s alleged tyranny against the average colonist.

King George III’s Proclamation of 1763 imposed the threat of tremendous financial losses on land speculation organizations, such as the Ohio Company, which had been founded in 1747 with the idea of developing the frontier in the Ohio Valley. Indeed, the Ohio Company had received a royal grant in 1749 of up to 500,000 acres (200,000 at first and an additional 300,000 acres later) north of the Ohio River, if it met two conditions: the establishment of a fort and settlement by at least one hundred families within seven years; that is, by 1756. As for meeting the requirement of a fort and garrisoning it, Washington built Fort Necessity (recall the charge that his activities in the Ohio country were “a scheme to promote the interest of a private company”) near to where the Jumonville battle occurred. He then lost Fort Necessity on July 3, 1754, on the one and only occasion when he was compelled to surrender to his enemy, in this case the French.

As we know, Washington’s military actions in 1754 helped precipitate the French and Indian War. With the war in full swing, it proved all but impossible to attract settlers to the land and so, perforce, the Ohio Company found itself unable to meet the land grant conditions within the seven years it had been allotted. Matters went from bad to worse for the company. Following the death of King George II in 1760, George III adopted new policies, including the Proclamation of 1763. The proclamation prohibited the colonists from settling on land in the Ohio Valley, which meant that neither the Ohio Company nor any other colonial land speculation enterprise—the opportunity for land acquisition remained open to English investors—could capitalize legally on the land development opportunity it believed made investment in the Ohio Valley so attractive.11 We mention “legally” because, as will become evident, George Washington did not have serious qualms about violating the king’s proclamation.

Back in 1747, all of the harmful circumstances that were to arise for the Ohio Company lay in the unknown future. At its outset, the company provided an opportunity for great enrichment. Its original founders were Thomas Lee (1690–1750), John Mercer (1704–1768), and Lawrence Washington (1718–1752). Thomas Lee was a wealthy landowner, the manager of Lord Fairfax’s estate (Northern Neck), and briefly the governor of Virginia, as well as a longtime member of the House of Burgesses and the Council of the State of Virginia on which he served until his death in 1750. He was also the father of two signers of the Declaration of Independence, Richard Henry and Francis Lightfoot Lee, both also members of the Virginia House of Burgesses. His was a wealthy, powerful, and important family that continued to exert a strong influence on American politics for over a century, counting, for instance, among its later members, General Robert E. Lee.

John Mercer was a prominent, highly influential Virginia lawyer, as well, of course, as an investor in land. He was, by marriage, George Mason’s uncle. Mason, a wealthy and influential Virginia revolutionary, was a neighbor and friend of Washington’s in later years. Mercer himself grew close to George Washington, serving later as his lawyer and investment partner. The relationship was apparently not only about business. Mercer’s second son, John Fenton Mercer (1735–1756), was commissioned as a captain in 1755 under George Washington. Sadly, John Fenton died in battle in 1756.

Like fellow founding member Thomas Lee, Lawrence Washington was a member of the House of Burgesses. Their two families were more than close. Remember that Lee managed the Fairfax estate and Lawrence was married to Anne Fairfax. When Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1752, Anne remarried into the Lee family, eventually leaving Mount Vernon, which she had inherited from Lawrence, to George who had rented it from her for many years after she remarried and moved elsewhere. So, the founders of the Ohio Company were powerful figures in Virginia’s government who were as well interlinked to one another by close family ties and shared business interests.

The interlocking ties of the Ohio Company did not end with its three primary founders. Virginia’s lieutenant governor, Robert Dinwiddie, was another shareholder in the Ohio Company. It was Dinwiddie who gave twenty-one-year-old George Washington an exceptional opportunity to play a part in the unfolding tensions between France and England, thereby launching Washington’s career. Dinwiddie, with the backing of the King’s Council, was the person who recommended and appointed Washington as the king’s emissary to confront the French and “require of them peaceably to depart”; and failing that, George II stated that “[we] do strictly command and charge you to drive them out by force of arms.”12

Robert Dinwiddie had two critical interests in that mission. He was lieutenant governor of Virginia; that is, the operational government manager of the Virginia Colony. And he also was one of the wealthy, influential shareholders in the Ohio Company, concerned with advancing the firm’s value through land acquisition in the very area to which Washington was sent to stop the advance of the French. By making George Washington into Major Washington, Dinwiddie advanced his own governmental and business interests, as well as those of Lee, Mercer, and L. Washington. He gave the king a totally inexperienced, but well connected, officer as his emissary, but one who happened to have two great virtues—Washington knew how to survey land as well as pick and register (patenting, in the vernacular of the times) desirable property, and he was a means for the lieutenant governor to curry favor with the founders of the Ohio Company, in which Dinwiddie was an investor. Hence, the seemingly well-grounded charge against George Washington on publication of his report following his encounter at Fort Leboeuf in the winter of 1753: “a scheme to promote the interest of a private company.”


  • "This entertaining read, which still pushes significant empirical value related to American history and the presidency, leads its audience to question the actual nobility of even the most idolized American presidents. A daring work designed for a wide audience."—CHOICE

On Sale
Sep 27, 2016
Page Count
320 pages

Andrew Cockburn

About the Author

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita is the Julius Silver Professor of Politics and director of the Alexander Hamilton Center for Political Economy at New York University. He is the author of sixteen books, including The Predictioneer’s Game.

Alastair Smith is professor of politics at New York University. The recipient of three grants from the National Science Foundation and author of three books, he was chosen as the 2005 Karl Deutsch Award winner, given biennially to the best international relations scholar under the age of forty. They are also the authors of The Spoils of War: Greed, Power, and the Conflicts That Made Our Greatest Presidents.

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