In the following, the adjective Fabian means: employing a cautiously persistent and dilatory strategy to wear out an enemy.
This adjective refers to the Roman general and statesman Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus (died 203 BC). After Hannibal defeated the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC in the second Punic War (218-201 BC), Fabius successfully pursued a strategy consisting in avoiding battle and weakening the Carthaginian invaders by cutting off supplies and by continual skirmishing. This earned him the nickname of Cunctator, which means the Delayer.
In the above-defined meaning, the adjective Fabian was first used in connexion with the American statesman and general George Washington (1732-99), who, during the War of American Independence (1775-83), used a strategy reminiscent of that of Fabius against the British army commanded by General William Howe (1729-1814).
In fact, Fabius was a sobriquet applied to General Washington. The earliest known text in which he is associated with the Roman general is a letter that William Eddis (1738-1825) wrote from Hunting Ridge, New York, on 1st December 1776—York Island was the former name of Manhattan:
The whole of York Island is in the possession of his Majesty’s forces. General Howe has, for some time, been attempting to force General Washington to a decisive action, which he has, hitherto, avoided with the penetration of a Fabius.
—from Letters from America, historical and descriptive; comprising occurrences from 1769, to 1777, inclusive. By William Eddis, late surveyor of the customs, &c. at Annapolis, in Maryland (London : Printed for the author, and sold by C. Dilly in the Poultry, 1792)
I have found an early occurrence of Fabius as a sobriquet of George Washington in The Manchester Mercury and Harrop’s General Advertiser (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of 7th January 1777—Provinces denotes the North-American colonies of Great Britain that subsequently became states in the United States of America, and Provincials denotes the inhabitants of those colonies; British in the British Fabius distinguishes George Washington from the Roman general:
It is on all hands agreed that nothing can be more deplorable than the present Situation of the Rebel Army in America—The order issued by the Congress, commanding each House keeper through the United Provinces to furnish the Troops under Washington with a Blanket, speaks upon the very face of it a Degree of Wretchedness unexampled in the Wars of civilized Nations; and proves that the British Fabius understands the Nature of the Service thoroughly, in declining to engage the Provincials, where he is not certain of an easy Victory.
General Washington was associated with Fabius Cunctator in The Pennsylvania Journal, and The Weekly Advertiser (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 29th January 1777, about the retreat of the American army after the capture of Fort Washington:
This retreat was censured by some as pusillanimous and disgraceful; but, did they know that our army was at one time less than a thousand effective men, and never more than 4000,—that the number of the enemy was at least 8000, exclusive of their artillery and light horse,—that this handful of Americans retreated slowly above 80 miles without losing a dozen men—and that suffering themselves to be forced to an action would have been their intire destruction—did they know this, they would never have censured it at all—they would have called it prudent—posterity will call it glorious—and the names of Washington and Fabius will run parallel to eternity.
In France too, Washington was known as Fabius, according to the following from The Public Advertiser (London, England) of 28th July 1777:
Gen. Washington is spoken of at the Court of France as the modern Fabius, and it is reported that a noble General of that Country, in Honour to the military Virtues of the American General, has sent him a handsome Snuff-Box, containing an antique Head of the Roman Fabius, richly ornamented with Jewels, and surrounded with the Motto—Cunctando restituit Rem [note 1].
The first known user of the adjective Fabian was Alexander Hamilton [note 2] in a letter to Robert R. Livingston [note 3], written from the Head Quarters Camp at Middle Brook, New Jersey, on 28th June 1777:
I know the comments that some people will make on our Fabian conduct. It will be imputed either to cowardice or to weakness: But the more discerning, I trust, will not find it difficult to conceive that it proceeds from the truest policy, and is an argument neither of the one nor the other. The liberties of America are an infinite stake. We should not play a desperate game for it or put it upon the issue of a single cast of the die. The loss of one general engagement may effectually ruin us, and it would certainly be folly to hazard it, unless our resources for keeping up an army were at an end, and some decisive blow was absolutely necessary; or unless our strength was so great as to give certainty of success. Neither is the case.
—from Founders Online
The earliest occurrence of Fabian that I have found is from a report from Kingston, New York, dated 7th July 1777, published in The Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) of 15th July 1777:
Howe hath now no hopes but from the success of a general battle, since he constantly loses and we as constantly gain strength, for these reasons we cannot sufficiently admire the conduct of his Excellency General Washington, who, notwithstanding the eagerness of his whole army, persisted in his Fabian system of defence.
In the following from The Connecticut Courant and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer (Hartford, Connecticut) of 14th October 1777, Fabian qualifies Washington:
Ever since Gen. Howe landed in America, it has been his aim to trepan and ensnare our army: Our Fabian General saw his foils and baffled them.
Fabian also qualifies Washington in this extract from a letter dated 7th November 1777, by a person signing themself ‘A King’s Friend’, published in The Kentish Gazette (Canterbury, Kent, England) of 12th November 1777:
To the Printers of the Kentish Gazette.
Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves,
Th’ Americans are conquer’d-slaves.—
Joy to great Cæsar! America is at length subdued; their northern and southern armies are both beaten, gloriously beaten. That boaster, one Arnold, is either killed or hanged up, like John the Painter, upon a sublime and elevated gallows at Albany; and Washington, the sly old Fabian fox Washington, after firing away his powder for three days, without doing any execution against the King’s troops in Pennsylvania, is made prisoner by the gallant Howe, and has been led in triumph through the streets of Philadelphia.
THE FABIAN SOCIETY
Named after Fabius Cunctator, the Fabian Society, founded in 1884, is an association of British socialists advocating the establishment of democratic socialism by gradual reforms within the law, as opposed to immediate attempts at revolutionary action.
This the title page of the first Fabian pamphlet (London: George Stranding, 1884)—it mentions the strategy employed by Fabius Cunctator against Hannibal:
The Fabian Society,
17, Osnaburgh Street, Regent’s Park.
Fabian Tracts, No. 1.
Why are the Many Poor?
“Wherefore it may not be gainsayed, that the fruit of this man’s long taking of counsel—and (by the many so deemed) untimeous delay—was the safe-holding for all men, his fellow-citizens, of the Common Weal.”
“For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.”
image: The Digital Library
LSE Library, 10 Portugal Street, London, WC2A 2HD
1 The phrase Cunctando restituit Rem is from the following lines, attributed to the Roman epic poet and playwright Quintus Ennius (239-169 BC) by the Roman statesman, orator and author Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) in De Senectute:
Unus homo nobis cunctando restituit rem.
Noenum rumores ponebat ante salutem;
Ergo plusque magisque viri nunc gloria claret.
translation from Cicero De Senectute (On Old Age), translated with an Introduction and Notes by Andrew P. Peabody (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1887):
One man by slow delays restored our fortunes,
Preferring not the people’s praise to safety,
And thus his after-glory shines the more.