16. GW Birthday Thoughts

Monday is George Washington’s 289th birthday. That is, according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in Great Britain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, which delayed his original birthdate by eleven days from the Julian, or Old Style, calendar. In any case, more than two centuries have passed since the squire of Mount Vernon left the scene—and yet it’s probably fair to say that he is, to this day, more myth than man in the historical consciousness of most Americans. Why is that?

A Bundle of Contradictions

I think part of the problem stems from his public persona, as Washington deliberately sought to maintain a degree of reserve around others that made him unapproachable to many of his peers and even more so to succeeding generations. In addition, the complexity of the man raises questions about just who he really was. Notwithstanding the lengthy exploration of this subject by far more authoritative voices, I took a stab at explaining just how enigmatic GW was—albeit in a very cursory manner—in The Road to Assunpink Creek.

Here’s the pertinent excerpt (p. 181):

The paradoxical qualities to be found in the father of our country are many and varied. The Washington who in his formative years was a self-interested, sometimes brash youth and a provincial Virginian became in his wartime role a selfless leader who exhibited prudent judgment and a steady hand in the cause of his country’s independence while adopting the perspective of an ardent nationalist.

In terms of his character, Washington might be described as an individual of driving ambition but modest public persona and as someone who experienced powerful emotions but publicly maintained an aloof and dignified demeanor. As a planter, he proved to be a shrewd businessman but struggled in his quest for financial security. A demanding slaveholder, he nevertheless became the only “founding father” to free those he held in servitude. And while generally demonstrating sound judgment, he needed ample time to make decisions.

As a public figure, Washington exhibited keen political skills but is not generally regarded as an accomplished politician. Although not an intellectual, he committed himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of certain ideas. He was a warrior who resolutely adhered to the principal of civilian control over the military, a general who lost more battles than he won but ultimately emerged victorious in America’s fight for independence, and an army commander who refused to accept a salary for his services yet kept a meticulous record of his expenses—for which he expected to be, and was, reimbursed by the Continental Congress at the end of the war. Finally, this was a leader who was used to exercising enormous power but appears to have eagerly relinquished it and in doing so demonstrated the full measure of his greatness, both when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 and when he left office after serving two terms as the first president of the United States in 1797.

An Imperfect Icon

Flawed GW was—as someone who bore his share of human frailties and as a member of a generation whose notions of freedom and equality were sadly deficient by today’s standards—but no one risked more in the quest to secure America’s right to rule itself than the Continental army’s commander-in-chief. His life, property, and reputation all hung in the balance.

At a very personal level, the Revolutionary struggle was an existential one for our foremost Founding Father, for failure would have meant certain death—either on the battlefield or at the end of a British rope. Of course, one could argue that other leading Patriot advocates like John Hancock or John Adams would have faced similarly dire consequences if the war had ended badly, but perhaps they would have had a better chance to elude capture, at least in theory, and thereby escape the wrath of a vengeful Crown than would a general on the frontlines.

Historians will differ on whether or not Washington was indispensable to the success of what he termed the “Glorious Cause,” the pursuit of American independence. Still, one thing seems abundantly clear. If he was not, nobody was.

8. A President without Precedent

The upcoming presidential election will be occurring in the midst of heightened national anxiety and acrimony stemming from multiple sources. At what may be a defining moment for our democracy, we might do well to recall some relevant insights from the first POTUS.

By George

The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. 

The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the constitution, which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all.

When a people shall have become incapable of governing themselves and fit for a master, it is of little consequence from what corner he comes.

Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the persons and consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but, according to their stations, to prevent it in others.

The marvel of all history is the patience with which men and women submit to burdens unnecessarily laid upon them by their governments.

If we cannot learn wisdom from experience, it is hard to say where it is to be found.

We must never despair; our situation has been compromising before, and it changed for the better; so I trust it will again. If difficulties arise, we must put forth new exertion and proportion our efforts to the exigencies of the times.

(The above are from Quotations of George Washington, Applewood Books, Inc., 2003.)

Wise Warnings

Today, when the country may be more politically polarized than at any time since the Civil War, one can almost infer from Washington’s letter to William Gordon of July 8, 1783 that he foresaw the sort of political rupture that would lead to America’s most dire conflagration eight decades later:

When the band of Union gets once broken, everything ruinous to our future prospects is to be apprehended—the best that can come of it, in my humble opinion is, that we shall sink into obscurity, unless our Civil broils should keep us in remembrance & fill the page of history with the direful consequences of them.

Perhaps Washington’s greatness was most especially manifested in his deference to civilian rule. The general who steadfastly adhered to the notion of military subservience to the people’s government noted “how dangerous to civil liberty the precedent is of armed soldiers dictating terms to their country.” That conviction was never more dramatically illustrated than in admonishing his fellow Continental army officers—while addressing them at Newburgh, New York, in March 1783—not to translate their grievances against Congress into military action against the civil authority and thereby undermine the foundations of a young nation’s political order and democratic rule:

And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the Liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in blood.

Judging GW

Granted, he had his share of human frailties. Who doesn’t? And yes, he shared the prevailing mindset of a generation whose freedom-and-equality train left black people, Indians, women, and men without property back at the station. (That is, notwithstanding Washington’s decision to free his slaves—making him the only slaveholder among the founding fathers to do so—albeit by a provision in his will that took effect upon the death of his wife Martha.) But then our democracy has always been a work in progress, however gradual, tentative, and sometimes painful that progression may have been.

In any case, I can’t help thinking that the elusive Virginian still has something to teach us. As Ron Chernow explains in Washington: A Life (The Penguin Press, 2010), “History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.” This was true of the army commander who most prominently risked his life, possessions, and reputation to secure America’s right to rule itself. And as well of the president who provided a template for his successors—above all, and to his everlasting credit, creating a tradition of presidential term limits—while converting the promise of republican government into a living reality, even as he endured the personal attacks and financial adversity attendant to his serving in office.

Bottom Line

Simply this. When it comes to certain values at the moral center of democratic governance—like putting country ahead of party and the national interest over private interest—the republic would be far better served if today’s “Washington mentality” reflected Washington’s mentality.