Leadership: Some Real “Swag”

On the Square

Octagon House

Octagon House

Benjamin Ogle Tayloe (1796-1868) is the son of Colonel John Tayloe III, the man who built the Octagon House at 18th and New York Ave., NW, Washington, D.C., about 1800.

The Octagon House was the stand-in White House for the Madison’s after the Brits burned the real one around the corner during the War of 1812.

As an adult, Ben Tayloe lived on the east side of Lafayette Square directly across from the White House when the square was the center of the American political universe.

The city was still a provincial southern town, dusty and desolate, where both the White House and the Capitol were unfinished, a visual metaphor for the country.

Tayloe by Powers

Tayloe by Powers

He rubbed shoulders with every president from Jackson to Johnson including Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor.

His neighbors on the square included Dolly Madison, Stephen Decatur and Henry Clay.

Tayloe was a prominent Whig and dined at the best tables in the city, including his own.

He both witnessed history and was a willing ear for those who wished to reminisce about it.

At some point he decided to write some stories down.

Washington: Steady and Brave

It is an unfortunate circumstance of history that we are fated to have a visual impression of George Washington as a white haired old man with pouting lips caused by his ill-fitting and painful dentures.

The man with a perpetual grimace.

Washington was in his prime when he was the commanding general of the Continental Army.  At six-two and 210 pounds he towered above most.  He was majestic, even electrifying, and his very presence commanded respect.

More to the point, he was extremely brave.  In the beginning he led volunteers and Washington believed that he must do so from the very front, in the midst of the action in order to instill courage in the troops.

He would not ask them to take a risk that he would forego.

Washington at 40

Washington at 40

One story among many, from the close engagement at Assunpink Creek in 1777,  was told by an old man late in life, some fifty years later, who fought there as a 20-year-old.

The gun fire was withering as the British were forcing the Americans back across the bridge.

Washington was intent that the withdrawal would cost the British dearly and that it would be conducted in good order, each step back carefully taken to avoid a rout.

This young fellow was in the vanguard and thus among the last to retreat across the bridge.

He was walking slowly backward when at mid-bridge he backed into an immovable object.

He glanced to his left to see a leather boot in a stirrup and followed the boot up to see Washington astride his horse calmly exhorting the troops to take their time.

On the Road to Mount Vernon

Tayloe tells us that just after the end of the war, Washington was back at Mount Vernon and he had need to go up to Alexandria.

He was traveling with his longtime aide and valet, Billy.

On his return from town, the regular road being impassable, he detoured onto a private road whereupon he was stopped by a man on horse back.

Tayloe tells us the horseman said, “You shall not pass this way.”

Washington said, “You don’t know me.”

“Yes I do, you are General Washington, who commanded the army in the Revolution and if you attempt to pass me I will shoot you.”

Washington called Billy up to his side as he took out one of his pistols and carefully inspected the priming.

Satisfied, he handed the gun to him and said,

“If this person shoots me, do you shoot him.”

And on to Mount Vernon they went.


Sources: McCullough’s 1776, Tayloe Reminiscences, Wiki, Chernow’s George Washington: A Life


  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    “He would not ask others to take a risk he would forego.” This is the essence of great leadership. Reminds me of the Marine hero, “Chesty” Puller, who was virtually worshipped by his men because he would not demand of them what he wouldn’t demand of himself.

  • Eric Lamar says:

    Also “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell who was completely without pretension.

    He famously and continuously referred to Chiang Kai-shek as that ‘goddamned peanut’ until FDR finally said, ‘You can’t say that.’

    FDR betrayed Stilwell to suck up to Madame Chiang.

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