Mark Segal

Mr. President, Washington and Franklin thank you

Filed By Mark Segal | January 09, 2011 11:30 AM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: Benjamin Franklin, Don't Ask Don't Tell, Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, gays in the military, George Washington, President Obama

When President Obama signed the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," he might have felt the ghosts of Founding Fathers George Washington and Benjamin Franklin smiling over his shoulder. They might have even whispered in his ear, "It's about time."

History clearly recalls that the Revolutionary Army was a rag-tag band of men with little to no military training. We fumbled through the beginning of the war of independence with lack of training, conduct and organization. Washington knew that, without help, the Colonies would lose. Since Washington himself was the best this nation had, he looked to Europe for someone who could bring order to the troops. To that end, Washington wrote the Colonies' representative in Paris at the time, Franklin, to see what he could find.

Franklin learned of a Prussian military genius, Lt. Gen. Friederich von Steuben, who'd had a string of successes with numerous armies across Europe. There was one problem: Various kingdoms of Europe had asked von Steuben to depart because of his "affections for members of his own sex." And while Franklin was interviewing him, the situation became somewhat hectic as members of the French clergy decided to make a crusade and drum him out of France.

Franklin had a choice here, and he decided von Steuben's expertise was more important than his sexual orientation. He and another colony representative, Silas Deane, acted quickly before the clergy could deport von Stuben and sent him to the Colonies to serve with Washington.

Once the lieutenant was here, Washington was concerned about von Steuben's lack of English, so he appointed two of his officers who spoke French to work as translators. One of those officers was Alexander Hamilton and the other was his close friend Henry Laurens. Some historians claim the two were lovers -- but that's another column.

Washington and Franklin's trust in von Steuben was realized as he taught the troops the essentials of military drills, tactics and disciplines, including how to effectively use a bayonet and organizing a military camp. He authored the "Revolutionary War Drill Manual," which became the standard drill manual until the War of 1812, and served as Washington's chief of staff in the final years of the Revolutionary War. He was part of Washington's inner circle, and a major factor in the victory of the Colonies. And that, my friends, is why gay history is important. And a fun read.


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Hey, loyal PGN reader from Central NJ! That's a great little story. I'm sure there have to be many more...wouldn't be great if some of the historians in our community put some of them together?

One of my all-time favorite books is "Transgender Warriors" by Leslie Feinberg, which is a history of transgender expression. I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest.

It just seems to me that the more we are able to convey our true presence in American history and culture to the American public at large, the smoother the path toward our full equality will be.

Mark, thanks for reminding everybody of our persistent presence in American history...and American uniforms.

Veteran Paul D. Hardman was probably the first of our historians to write about the colonial/ Revolutionary-era "gays in the military," including Von Steuben, Alexander Hamilton and others. He published his landmark study "Homoeffectualism" in 1993.

Hardman's work inspired me to look more closely at Alexander Hamilton and the men he liked. I wrote this Bilerico piece for gay history month in 2008. It can be found at http://www.bilerico.com/2008/10/alexander_hamilton_--_little_lion_of_the.php

Indeed, the Cavalier side of 17th-century soldiering was more weighted than the Puritan Protestant side with what we'd call gay and bi men today. Some of these gentlemen influenced American history in amazingly diverse ways.

Example: George Villiers 2nd Duke of Buckingham, English Civil War royalist cavalry leader who was notorious in his time for MSM adventures. The Duke never visited the American colonies, but he was a good friend of William Penn and staunch defender of the persecuted Quakers. Villiers' influence with King Charles II was instrumental in arranging the Quakers' right to emigrate to the American colonies. Villiers also authored a treatise on religious liberty that may have influenced Thomas Jefferson.

My Villiers piece for gay history month 2009 can be found at http://www.bilerico.com/2009/10/bisexuals_royals_william_penn_and_religious_libert.php

It should be noted though that Washington drummed another gay soldier out of the military after having him imprisoned for a short while.

Paul Neuwirth | January 12, 2011 10:49 PM

Everyone should read Randy Shilt's book, Conduct Unbecoming, a history of gays in the military. I found out about von Steuben's history when I read this book back in 1995, and was amazed. If it hadn't been for this man, whose war manuals were used by West Point for many years, we'd probably still be a British colony!