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Just Imagine… Innovating Discipline from Chaos

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, by Charles Willson Peale

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was destined to have a military career. He was born in a fortress town in what was then Prussia in 1830. His father was an officer in the Prussian army and von Steuben was a volunteer in his father’s military command at the age of 14. At 17, von Steuben served in the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France.

When the war was over, von Steuben was unemployed. While traveling in France, he met Benjamin Franklin. This meeting eventually led to von Steuben coming to America to support America’s war against England.

George Washington appointed von Steuben to be Inspector General of the Continental Army. What he found was appalling. Sanitary conditions were terrible. There was no organization to the camp. One of the first things he did was to place the camp’s kitchen and latrines on opposite sides of the camp. There was no record of supplies, and they were routinely being stolen. Weapons and ammunition would often turn up missing.

Von Steuben also realized the soldiers were not trained. He introduced the concept of progressive training where soldiers were trained in stages. He wrote a book for training soldiers which remained in use for over 60 years.

Eventually von Steuben became General Washington’s Chief of Staff. His innovations were an important factor in the victory of the ragtag American forces over the British. Without von Steuben, it’s likely that the American Army would have continued its undisciplined ways, and it would have been many more years before American gained its independence.

Historians generally acknowledge that Friedrich von Steuben was a gay man. It’s ironic that the American military has been largely shaped by someone whose sexual identity would have prevented him from serving our national military until recent years.

Innovations have often been rejected based upon such factors as race, gender, and sexual identity. Just imagine what might have happened if von Steuben’s military organizational innovations had been rejected because of his status as a gay man. Innovations should be valued for the positive changes they promise, not because of the identity of the innovator.

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“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”– Steven Johnson (science author)

This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.