Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Statesmanship of George Washington

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a “statesman” as one who is versed in the principles or art of government; and a wise, skillful, and respected political leader.  Washington was all of this, and more. While not as well-educated as Jefferson or Madison, Washington (who did not attend college), in addition to a being an ardent student of farming, was a devoted reader and student of Western political philosophy and history.  At the time of his death, his library consisted of over 900 volumes, which in addition to agricultural books, included such classics as Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics, Plutarch’s Lives, and Locke’s Two Treatises on Government. One of his favorite books, however, was not a treatise on agriculture but a play titled Cato by Addison. Washington loved the theatre, and like many other new Americans, appreciated the relevance of the play’s depiction of the Roman statesman Cato’s struggle between virtue and tyranny.  Of course, he read newspapers and the pamphlets of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, of which he ordered copies for all of his troops. And, during the debate over the Constitution, he read the Federalist Papers, as well as many other essays.

He also surrounded himself with, and listened to counsel from, the great thinkers of the Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, his first Secretary of State, Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of the Treasury, and John Adams, the first Vice President.  Like President Lincoln’s cabinet, these men proved to be Washington’s “Team of Rivals.”  Washington also considered James Madison a trusted political confidant and corresponded with him often.  When Washington contemplated his retirement from public office (after his first term as President), he relied on Madison to draft his farewell address.[1]

Washington’s education in the principles of self-government were deeply rooted in religion and in his reading of the Bible.  As a prominent historian has stated, “Throughout his public life Washington successfully balanced public religion with religious liberty… [he] invoked the language of the Bible in private and in public his whole life.  It had a strong influence on Washington’s mind, and morals, and speech… [and] as a statesman.”[2]

Washington was especially fond of agrarian biblical metaphors such as “wheat and tares,” turning “swords into ploughshares,” and sitting in peace under a “vine and fig tree.” …Washington adapted those prophetic lines on several occasions as president. In a 1791 letter to Catherine Macaulay Graham, he combined the allusion from Micah with the New Testament verses Matthew 24:6 and Mark 13:7, predicting “wars and rumors of wars.” The “United States enjoys a scene of prosperity and tranquillity under the new government,” he told her, “that could hardly have been hoped for under the old . . . while you, in Europe, are troubled with war and rumors of war, every one here may sit under his own vine and none to molest or make him afraid.”[3] …Upon accepting his commission as commander of the Continental Army, Washington combined classical and biblical elements in his speech to Congress. Washington declared that “I have no lust after power but wish with as much fervency as any Man upon this wide extended Continent, for an opportunity of turning the Sword into a plow share.”[4]

We can see evidence of Washington’s statesmanship at two critical junctures of the American Revolution.  He understood the important difference between civil and military power and always acknowledged and respected from whence his authority came, and who he ultimately served, the people and their representatives.  When his troops were destitute of food, clothing and supplies during the bitterly cold winters at Valley Forge and again at Morristown, General Washington constantly appealed to Congress. He requested, cajoled, and complained, but he never used threats or compulsion.[5]  As French Major General wrote of Washington in 1782, “This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and he has obeyed Congress: more need not be said.”[6]  

Then again, in 1783, after the Revolutionary War was finally over and the peace treaty was being negotiated in Paris with Great Britain, disgruntled Officers of the Continental Army privately met in Newburgh, New York on March 15th, to discuss their grievances and to consider a possible revolt, or military coup, against Congress. They were angry over the failure of Congress to honor its promises to the army regarding salary and pensions. The officers had heard that the American government was going broke and that they might not be compensated at all. Unexpectedly, Washington showed up at their unauthorized meeting.  He was not entirely welcomed by his men, but nevertheless, spoke to them … He pledged to help them obtain amends for their grievances. He encouraged them to “patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated sufferings.”

However sincere, his remarks were not very well received by his men. The question of a military overthrow of Congress still hung in the balance.  If Washington decided to join his men, he could march on Philadelphia and become King of America (and such was the history of leaders such as Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus).  After a long silence, Washington took out a letter from a Congressman explaining the financial difficulties of the government. After reading a portion of the letter with his eyes squinting at the small writing, Washington suddenly stopped. … His officers stared at him, wondering… Washington then reached into his coat pocket and took out a pair of reading glasses. Few of them even knew that he wore glasses, and were surprised.

"Gentlemen," said Washington, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." In that moment, Washington's men were deeply moved, even shamed, and many were quickly brought to tears, now looking with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word. … After a long silence, his officers voted unanimously to submit to the rule of Congress, thus preserving the rule of law in the fledgling Republic.

On April 30, 1789, standing on the balcony of Federal Hall on Wall Street in New York, Washington took his oath of office as the first President of the United States. ‘As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” he wrote James Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.”[7]  As our nation’s first Chief Executive, Presidential historian Stephen F. Knott, has noted that, “Washington shaped many  …aspects of the presidency that we take for granted today. He created the president’s cabinet (and what a cabinet it was); he fulfilled his constitutional obligation to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed” …he established (in concert with James Madison) the precedent that the president alone possessed the power to remove executive branch appointees; and perhaps most importantly, he left a legacy of respect for the new office through his deft blend of accessibility and detachment – Washington’s frequent presidential tours of the nation allowed the people to see their president, although always at a distance. This was not a glad handing president who pandered to the people and tried to win their affection by presenting himself as a “regular guy.” Washington believed that the people wanted to look up to their president, and that a certain amount of awe toward the office, even in a republic, was an attribute that contributed to a respectable government.”[8]

A final observation on Washington’s statesmanship to consider was made by the secretary of a British Diplomat who said that Washington “[possessed] the two great requisites of a statesman, the faculty of concealing his own sentiments and of discovering those of other men.”[9] As John Adams recalled years later, “He possessed the gift of silence.”[10]  And, when it came time for him to step down as leader of the only free nation in the world, he did so humbly, returning “to the plow” at his beloved farm at Mount Vernon.

The day after she heard of Washington’s death, Abigail Adams wrote to her sister:

“No man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and respected. The praise and I may say adulation which followed his administration for several years, never made him forget that he was a man, subject to the weakness and frailty attached to human nature. He never grew giddy, but ever maintained a modest diffidence of his own talents, and if that was an error, it was of the amiable and engaging kind. . . . Possessed of power, possessed of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benefit of his Country. Witness his retirement to private life when Peace closed the scenes of War; when called by the unanimous suffrages of the People to the chief Majestracy of the Nation, he acquitted himself to the satisfaction and applause of all good men. When assailed by faction, when reviled by party, he suffered with dignity, and retired from his exalted station with a character which malice would not wound, nor envy tarnish. If we look through the whole tenor of his life, history will not produce to us a parallel.”[11]



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[1] George Washington (GW) to James Madison, May 20, 1792, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York; James Madison to George Washington, June 21, 1792, James Madison Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 
[2] Dr. Jeffry Morrison, Associate Professor of Government, Regent University, “Washington & Religion,” Presentation at Christopher Newport University, February 21, 2014 (http://cnu.edu/cas/past_events/washington%20seminar/).
[3] GW to Catherine Macaulay Graham, July 19, 1791
[4] GW to the President of Congress, Dec. 20, 1776
[5] Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), p. 39 (cited as Brookhiser).
[6] JTF, Vil. II, p. 63 (the French officer was Marquis de Chastellux).
[7] W. Abbott, ed., The Papers of George Washington (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 1987), 2:216-17.
[8] Stephen F. Knott, “George Washington: The Indispensable President” (Article, February 20, 2014, http://wjmi.blogspot.com/2014/02/george-washington-indispensable.html).
[9] Brookhiser, p. 79.
[10] Page Smith, John Adams, (Garden City: Double Day & Co., 1962), p. 1084.
[11] Abigail Adams to Mary Smith Cranch, Philadelphia, December 22, 1799.

Image is of "Washington at Peace" (A. Stirling Calder) with figures at his side representing Wisdom and Justice, on the Washington Arch in Greenwich Village, New York (https://walkaboutny.com/2014/02/22/a-birthday-tribute-to-george-washington/)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

"The Moral Challenges for the 21st Century" by Lady Margaret Thatcher

Lady Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) “was the first woman to become prime minister of Britain and the first to lead a major Western power in modern times. Hard-driving and hardheaded, she led her Conservative Party to three straight election wins and held office for 11 years — May 1979 to November 1990 — longer than any other British politician in the 20th century. The strong economic medicine she administered to a country sickened by inflation, budget deficits and industrial unrest brought her wide swings in popularity, culminating with a revolt among her own cabinet ministers in her final year and her shout of “No! No! No!” in the House of Commons to any further integration with Europe. But by the time she left office, the principles known as Thatcherism — the belief that economic freedom and individual liberty are interdependent, that personal responsibility and hard work are the only ways to national prosperity, and that the free-market democracies must stand firm against aggression — had won many disciples. Even some of her strongest critics accorded her a grudging respect.” (New York Times, April 8, 2013). She spoke of the principles of individual liberty and economic freedom on a visit to the United States twenty years ago. Following are excerpts from her speech “The Moral Challenges for the Next Century” given at Brigham Young University on March 5, 1996.

Liberty, that great political idea—sanctifying freedom, and consecrating it to God; teaching men to treasure the liberties of others as their own; to defend them for the love of justice and charity more than as a claim of right—has been the soul of what is great and good. (Quoting Lord Acton)

America, my friends, is the only country in the world actually founded on liberty— the only one. People went to America to be free. The Founding Fathers journeyed to this country across the perilous seas not for subsidies—there weren’t any—not to make a fortune even, but to worship God in their own way and by their example to perpetuate freedom and justice more widely….They believed, each and every one of them, in the sanctity of the individual. That, after all, is our faith: that each and every person matters equally, and that each of us is accountable to his God for his actions and for the use of his talents.

Those Pilgrim fathers came with the faith that infused the whole nation. Yours is the only nation founded on liberty. And you’re founded on liberty because of that faith.

Indeed, Sir Edward Gibbon, who also wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, wrote tellingly of the collapse of Athens, the birthplace of democracy. What he wrote has great meaning for us—we should heed it. He said, speaking of the Athenians: In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security and they wanted a comfortable life. And they lost it all—security, comfort, and freedom. The Athenians finally wanted not to give to society, but for society to give to them. When the freedom they wished for most was freedom from responsibility, then Athens ceased to be free. That should be an object lesson to us all.

There can be no freedom or liberty without a rule of law because otherwise, as you know, it would be the freedom of the strong to oppress the weak. There is something very unique in the character of the people of Britain, and they brought that uniqueness here and added many other things to it— right from the year 1215, when we had the great Magna Carta, when the barons squared up to a king because he was taxing them and taxing them. They said, “We’re not going to pay you monies unless you first redress our grievances.” And they didn’t.

It is now an election time, I gather, over here. I say this to you: Expediency and pragmatism are never enough. When I had to pull Britain around, we worked out our principles, once again renewed them, worked out our policies from our principles, and then implemented our programs. And they were all of a piece because we had the faith on our side, and we knew that what we were doing was fundamentally right.

I should perhaps say also, not only are pragmatism and expediency not enough, but followership isn’t enough either. You know, some people look at their opinion polls. I never did. I thought I was better off without them. But some people practice followership. There was in the last century a politician in France, Ledru-Rollin, who had his own definition of leadership. After a big meeting in an open square one day, he went back to his office, saw a group of his own people moving away, and said to his companion, “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so that I can lead them there.” No, if you are going to chart the way into a better future, you must have a compass of enduring values and principles to steer by.

What about capitalism and free enterprise? When I first came into politics, we used to hear the left wing denigrating free enterprise. They suggested that a command and centrally controlled economy maximizingthe powers of government and minimizing those of the people would produce better results—because, after all, government knew best and could plan everything….Now that is the ideological battle of this century. But I think those of us who believe as passionately as we do in a free society should put the case of capitalism much more positively than that it merely performs better. Capitalism is economic liberty. It is a vital element in the network of freedom. It is a moral quality, for it reflects man and his right to use his God-given talents.

You get the best results by men and women exercising their God-given talents and working together and responding to the needs of the market in a community of work. Of course, the market’s never been unfettered. It requires a framework of law, regulations about weights and measures, regulations about accurate description, and so on. This will change with the circumstances, but these laws must never stifle the spirit of enterprise.

Many years ago, Edmund Burke, the great commentator, philosopher, and member of Parliament, had it right when he criticized measures to secure economic equality. He said this: “It is the character of egalitarian measures that they pull down what is above. They never raise what is below. Beware dependency on the state.” This was in 1770. Beware dependency on the state. Once used to such support, people would never be satisfied to have it otherwise.

But, my friends, freedom has responsibilities as well. As we look ahead, some people are taking the freedom and leaving the responsibilities. This is giving us one of the most serious problems, one of the most acute problems, of the future. The values and virtues we prize are honesty, self-discipline, a sense of responsibility to one’s family, a sense of loyalty to one’s employer and staff, and pride in the quality of one’s work. All these flourish in a climate of enlightened politics. But these qualities are threatened in the West by a lack of respect for the rights, freedom, and property of others—and thought for others. This manifests itself in two ways: in rising crime and violence, as people go and take what they want and have no sense of morality towards others, and also in the breakdown of the family arising from a vastly increased number of children born to single parents.

No government at any level, or at any price, can afford, on the crime side, the police necessary to assure our safety unless the overwhelming majority of us are guided by an inner, personal code of morality. And you will not get that inner, personal code of morality unless children are brought up in a family—a family that gives them the affection they seek, that makes them feel they belong, that guides them to the future, and that will build continuity in future generations….Indeed, I would say, the greatest inequality today is not inequality of wealth or income. It is the inequality between the child brought up in a loving, supportive family and one who has been denied that birthright.

Now, my friends, we must never be complacent. We must never think that there will be perpetual peace. That is what they thought after World War I. We must be vigilant to see that we are fully and strongly equipped should anyone dare to, or want to, attack us. Dictators are frightened by the strength of others. They are attracted by weakness. Let us be vigilant to ensure that the great heart, as Winston would have put it, has his sword and armor to guard the pilgrims on their way.

May I finish with the words from a great hymn [we used to sing it in school]

I vow to thee, my country—all earthly things above—
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love...

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently, her shining bounds increase,
And her ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.

[“I Vow to Thee, My Country,” music by Gustav Holst and words by Cecil Spring Rice]

Sunday, June 19, 2016

General Washington's Farewell Address to Congress (1783)

"General Washington was nearly fifty-two when he decided to retire from military life and return to his Mount Vernon plantation.  He said good-bye to his officers (in the Long Room at Fraunces' Tavern in New York City), told the Army farewell in Rocky Hill (near Princeton, New Jersey) and bid Congress adieu (in the Old Senate Chamber at the Annapolis State House). 

When he gave his farewell address to Congress, he returned his commander-in-chief commission which he’d received in 1775.  It was a powerfully symbolic gesture that the new country would be governed by civilians, not generals.  The speech was so personally significant, he had to still the shaking document by holding it with both hands.  Washington knew the importance of his actions, and his words were so sincere the crowd wept. 

When the event was over, he gave the original speech to a friend and sped away from the Annapolis State House on horseback.  Later, John Trumbull (who was present when the British surrendered at Yorktown) memorialized the scene in a famous painting." (https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Washington-s-Farewell-A-Great-Leader-Gives-Up-Power).  The text of his address follows:

“The great object, for which I had the honor to hold an appointment in the service of my country, being accomplished, I am now preparing to resign it into the hands of Congress, and to return to that domestic retirement, which, it is well known, I left with the greatest reluctance; a retirement for which I have never ceased to sigh, through a long and painful absence, and in which (remote from the noise and trouble of the world) I meditate to pass the remainder of life, in a state of undisturbed repose. But before I carry this resolution into effect, I think it a duty incumbent on me to make this my last official communication; to congratulate you on the glorious events which Heaven has been pleased to produce in our favor; to offer my sentiments respecting some important subjects, which appear to me to be intimately connected with the tranquillity of the United States; to take my leave of your Excellency as a public character; and to give my final blessing to that country, in whose service I have spent the prime of my life, for whose sake I have consumed so many anxious days and watchful nights, and whose happiness, being extremely dear to me, will always constitute no inconsiderable part of my own…

The citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole lords and proprietors of a vast tract of continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the world, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now, by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and independency. They are, from this period, to be considered as the actors on a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity. Here they are not only surrounded with every thing, which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment; but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer opportunity for political happiness, than any other nation has ever been favored with.

Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than as recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our republic assumed its rank among the nations. The foundation of our empire was not laid in the gloomy age of ignorance and superstition; but at an epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period. The researches of the human mind after social happiness have been carried to a great extent; the treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labors of philosophers, sages, and legislators, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the establishment of our forms of government. The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a nation; and, if their citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.

Such is our situation, and such are our prospects; but, notwithstanding the cup of blesses thus reached out to us; notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptible and miserable, as a nation. This is the time of their political probation; this is the moment when the eyes of the whole world are turned upon them; this is the moment to establish or ruin their national character for ever; this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our federal government, as will enable it to answer the needs of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics,which may play one State against another, to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall; and by their confirmation or lapse it is yet to be decided, whether the revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse; a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn millions be involved.” 
-- George Washington (December 4, 1783).


Sunday, May 8, 2016

Founding Mothers

"...We celebrate our founders, and the troops who sacrificed their lives for the creation of our nation. But ...there are some crucial people being left out: the women of the revolution. Women were an integral part of colonial society, and later, the Revolutionary War. Their place was usually in the home, where they took care of their husbands, raised children and carried out endless daily tasks: They were butchers, cleaners, candle makers, cooks, farmers, tailors. During the war they also became nurses, activists, camp helpers and even soldiers on the frontline. While we celebrate [Mother's Day], we should remember these brave women who fought for and helped to shape our nation. Here are just a few:
461px-Abigail_Adams
Abigail Adams (1744 – 1818). When Abigail married John Adams in 1764, she probably did not realize the impact she would have in the American Revolution. She frequently corresponded with her husband and influenced his political leanings and stance on equality. She famously asked her husband to “remember the ladies” in the Declaration of Independence (didn’t happen, but at least she asked). Her letters serve as important historical documents which elaborate on the political climate and customs of colonial America. In 1775, she was appointed by the Massachusetts Colony General Court to question Massachusetts women who were thought to be loyalists, one of the first instances of women being involved in the U.S. government. Self-educated, she believed in the equality of women and supported their rights and education. In 1797 she became the second First Lady of the U.S. when her husband was elected the nation’s second president.
Molly Pitcher (?? – ??). Although her existence has been hotly debated, Molly Pitcher was the nickname given to a woman known for bringing water to soldiers to cool down the cannons on the battlefield so that they could be reloaded and fired again.
She has been identified as Molly Hays McCauley, who followed her husband John to battle. During a battle at Monmouth, N.J., on June 28, 1778, her husband was injured while crewing the cannon, and she immediately took his place. Another woman thought to be Molly Pitcher was Margaret Corbin, who also followed her husband to battle (he was later killed in the battle of Fort Washington in November 1776). 
She took his place, swabbing and loading the cannons, and was wounded in battle. She was granted a stipend of $30 and a lifelong pension, the first woman to be given a disabled soldier’s pension. Regardless of the true identity of Molly Pitcher, these are only a few examples of women who not only assisted the soldiers, but were actively involved in combat.
DeborahSampson
Deborah Sampson (1760 – 1827). After years of indentured servitude and being a teacher in Massachusetts, Sampson cut her hair, wrapped up her chest, made some men’s clothing and signed up for the Revolutionary War on May 20, 1782. She signed up using the name Robert Shurtlif, and although the last major battle occurred prior to her duty, she participated in guerrilla warfare for a few months. After receiving both head and thigh wounds at one skirmish, she visited a doctor for treatment of the head wound, but feared discovery of her identity if she showed her thigh wound. After leaving the hospital, she removed the musket ball from her thigh herself and continued fighting. She received a pension for her service and later became a praised lecturer. Her bravery and strength in battle was commended by many, including Paul Revere.
Mammy Kate (?? – ??) – Mammy Kate was a slave in Georgia under the possession of Stephen Heard. She was well known for her large stature, strength, and loyalty. When Heard was captured by Loyalists and set to be hanged by British forces at Fort Cornwallis at Augusta, Georgia, she followed him and, by charming the troops, became the laundress for the guards and for Heard. One day, carrying a giant laundry basket, the tall, strong woman was able to sneak him out under a sheet, with the guards thinking she was just doing her usual duties (Heard was a very small man). She was able to take him back to Fort Heard, where Heard granted her freedom and gave her four acres of land and a four-roomed home. She died on Heard’s land, immortalized by her loyalty and bravery.
Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). Born in Senegal and kidnapped into slavery in 1761, Wheatley was purchased by Boston’s John Wheatley as a personal servant for his wife Susanna. Due to the girl’s frail health, Susanna instead taught Phillis English, Latin and theology, and she learned to read and write at a fast pace. She published her first poem in 1767, and in 1773 she was the first African American, first slave and only third American woman to publish a book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Some white colonists found it hard to believe that a slave was writing such fine poetry, so she had to defend her authorship in court. She wrote many poems about the Revolutionary War and dedicated some to George Washington. Although she never found support to publish a second volume of poems and died young, she forever has a place in U.S. history."  Source: http://msmagazine.com/blog/2013/07/04/what-about-the-founding-mothers/

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Quotes on Washington's Character

"In the course of his life, Washington’s fate became inseparable from the fate of his country. By the time of his death he was identified in the eyes of the world with America and the cause of liberty for which America stood. His greatness was a testament to America’s promise. The significance of that testament has not diminished with time. To the contrary, for anyone who wants to understand this country and help fulfill its promise, it is, if anything, more necessary today than at any time in the past to understand the greatness of George Washington. It is still true, 200 years after it was first said by Fisher Ames in a eulogy of Washington, that 'Our history is but a transcript of his claims on our gratitude.'"[1]

The Marquis de Chastellux recorded in his notes, "The strongest characteristic of this respectable man is the perfect harmony which reigns between the physical and moral qualities which compose his personality. . . . It is not my intention to exaggerate. I wish only to express the impression General Washington has left on my mind, the idea of a perfect whole.” (Travels in North America, Basil Hall, 1828)

"His sheer personal presence was a significant and characteristic part of his greatness and of his influence on the world. In battle and in counsel, he often exerted a powerful impact on those around him just by being there and being the man he was. As Lafayette observed at the Battle of Monmouth, where Washington’s appearance on the scene stopped a confused and panicked retreat, “General Washington seemed to arrest fortune with one glance.”[2]

“Born to high destinies, he was fashioned for them by the hand of nature. His form was noble—his port majestic. On his front were enthroned the virtues which exalt, and those which adorn the human character. So dignified his deportment, no man could approach him but with respect—none was great in his presence. You have all seen him, and you all have felt the reverence he inspired. . . .” -- Gouverneur Morris, Eulogy of Washington (1799)

“The serenity of his countenance, and majestic gracefulness of his deportment, impart a strong impression of that dignity and grandeur, which are his peculiar characteristics, and no one can stand in his presence without feeling the ascendancy of his mind, and associating with his countenance the idea of wisdom, philanthropy, magnanimity, and patriotism.” --Dr. James Thacher (1778)

In the great crises of the American revolution and founding, “some man was wanting who possessed a commanding power over the popular passions, but over whom those passions had no power. That man was Washington. Consider, for a moment, what a reputation it was, in 1789; such as no man ever before possessed by so clear a title, and in so high a degree. His fame seemed in its purity to exceed even its brightness. Office took honor from his acceptance, but conferred none. Ambition stood awed and darkened by his shadow. . . . This is not exaggeration; never was confidence in a man and a chief magistrate more widely diffused, or more solidly established. . . .” --Fisher Ames’ Eulogy of Washington, February 8, 1800

“With patriotic pride we review the life of our Washington and compare him with those of other countries who have been preeminent in fame. Ancient and modern names are diminished before him. Greatness and guilt have too often been allied, but his fame is whiter than it is brilliant. The destroyers of nations stood abashed at the majesty of his virtue. It reproved the intemperance of their ambition and darkened the splendor of victory… Let his countrymen consecrate the memory of the heroic general, the patriotic statesman, and the virtuous sage. Let them teach their children never to forget that the fruit of his labors and his example are their inheritance.”  --Eulogy from United States Senate, 1799

“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private charter gave effulgence to his public virtues; Such was the man for whom our nation morns.” --John Marshall, official eulogy of George Washington, delivered by Richard Henry Lee, 1799
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[1] "Rediscovering George Washington" (formerly on PBS online)
[2] Id.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

President's Day and Washington's Birthday

The federal holiday celebrated this year on Monday, February 15th, 2016 (the 3rd Monday of February) is officially intended to honor George Washington’s Birthday. Washington’s Birthday has been a federal holiday since 1885. For more than 80 years it was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22nd.  What changed?  Following is a brief history of this important holiday: 

“Presidents' Day is intended (for some) to honor all the American presidents, but most significantly George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. According to the Gregorian or "New Style" calendar that is most commonly used today, George Washington was born on February 22, 1732. But according to the Julian or "Old Style" calendar that was used in England until 1752, his birth date was February 11th. Back in the 1790s, Americans were split - some celebrated his birthday on February 11th and some on February 22nd.

When Abraham Lincoln became president and helped reshape our country, it was believed he, too, should have a special day of recognition. Tricky thing was that Lincoln’s birthday fell on February 12th. Prior to 1968, having two presidential birthdays so close together didn't seem to bother anyone. February 22nd was observed as a federal public holiday to honor the birthday of George Washington and February 12th was observed as a public holiday to honor Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

In 1968, things changed when the 90th Congress was determined to create a uniform system of federal Monday holidays. They voted to shift the existing holidays (including Washington's Birthday) to Mondays. The law took effect in 1971, and as a result, Washington's Birthday holiday was changed to the third Monday in February. But not all Americans were happy with the new law. There was some concern that Washington's identity would be lost since the third Monday in February would never fall on his actual birthday. There was also an attempt to rename the public holiday "Presidents' Day", but the idea didn't go anywhere since some believed not all presidents deserved a special recognition.

Even though Congress had created a uniform federal holiday law, there was not a uniform holiday title agreement among the individual states. Some states, like California, Idaho, Tennessee and Texas chose not to retain the federal holiday title and renamed their state holiday "President's Day." From that point forward, the term “Presidents' Day” became a marketing phenomenon, as advertisers sought to capitalize on the opportunity for three-day or week-long sales. 

In 1999, bills were introduced in both the U.S. House (HR-1363) and Senate (S-978) to specify that the legal public holiday once referred to as Washington's Birthday be "officially" called by that name once again. Both bills died in committees.

Today, "President’s Day" is well accepted and celebrated. Some communities still observe the original holidays of Washington and Lincoln, and many parks actually stage reenactments and pageants in their honor. The National Park Service also features a number of historic sites and memorials to honor the lives of these two presidents, as well as other important leaders.” (1) 

Despite the commercial and frequent use of the term “President’s Day,” hopefully, we as a nation will choose to continue to celebrate and remember the life and legacy of the Father of our Nation, George Washington on the federal holiday, or on his actual birthday, February 22nd.  An excellent way to do so was commended to all citizens by none other than Abraham Lincoln in a Presidential Proclamation on February 19, 1862:

"It is recommended to the people of the United States that they assemble in their customary places of meeting for public solemnities on the twenty-second day of February instant, and celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Father of His Country by causing to be read to them his immortal Farewell Address.” (2)

J. David Gowdy, President
The Washington, Jefferson & Madison Institute
______________________________________


Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Character of George Washington

George Washington began at an early age to work to improve his character.  At age 16 he copied out by hand “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation.”  These rules of civility, totaling 110, are based upon a set composed by French Jesuits in 1595.  Upon review, they may seem outdated and even silly (particularly in our modern Hollywood and Facebook culture, where it sometimes seems that civility and decent behavior are all a thing of the past), but at their core they have to do with good manners, modesty, morality, and respect for others.  

Here are a few:
6th – “Sleep not when others speak…”
7th – “Put not off your clothes in the presence of others, nor go out your chamber half dress’d.”
9th – “Spit not in the fire…”
15th – “Keep your nails clean and short, also your hands and teeth clean yet without showing any great concern for them.

Now some more serious ones:
22nd – “Show not yourself glad at the misfortune of another though he were your enemy.”
40th – “Strive not with your superiors in argument, but always submit your judgment to others with modesty.”
48th – “Wherein you reprove another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than precepts.”
82nd – “Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.”
89th – “Speak not evil of the absent for it is unjust.”

And finally,
108th – “When you speak of God or his attributes, let it be seriously & with reverence. Honor & obey your natural parents although they be poor.”
109th – “Let your recreations be manful not sinful.”
110th – “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

Of course, we cannot assume that just because young George wrote down these rules (most likely for a schoolmaster), that he followed all of them.  But as so many have studied and reviewed his life’s conduct in private as well as in public, it appears that he took this academic exercise most seriously to heart.  Parson Weems got this right in his biography of Washington, when he wrote that it was “no wonder every body honoured him who honoured everybody.” [1]

In his moral biography of Washington, Richard Brookhiser asserts that Washington was obsessed with what today we would call his reputation or public image but was then known in the 18th century as ''character.'' From his youth, he sought dignified fame and military glory. He achieved both. But he did so, just as we must do, by learning from his mistakes and through diligence and great self-discipline.

In this vein, as one commentator has written, “Underneath everything lay Washington's desire for a good reputation. Some acts were simply dishonorable, some bad manners, and others merely stupid. A gentleman who wanted respect avoided all three as best he could. The preventives were called honesty and courage, courtesy and civility, and the combination of reading, intelligent observation, and fore-thought. One avoided thoughtless words and promises by saying little, drinking less, and by an unwavering politeness to friends and enemies alike. This was not easy for Washington, for he was a sensitive man who possessed a fiery temper and he had an exquisite vocabulary of unprintable words which could be effectively employed on the proper occasions. All the more reason for his exercising his famous self-control.”[2]

Washington’s character as a young military officer was tested in the French and Indian War.  As Brookhiser writes, this war was “the final struggle between Britain and France for control of the Continent, and Washington took part in some of its most dramatic moments; indeed, he had fired the first shots in it.  …Before the war began, Washington, a major in the militia with training as a surveyor, made a 300-mile trip into the Pennsylvania wilderness to scout out French intentions, keeping a journal...  He was only 21 years old.  [A year later] he went back into the woods at the head of a small force [as a British officer] where he attacked a party of French.  “I heard the bullet’s whistle,” he wrote a younger brother, “and, believe me, there is something charming in the sound…” 

Washington …[had] expected to drive the French to Montreal; instead, they surrounded him and forced him to surrender.  Britain’s agent for Indian affairs felt the young officer had been “too ambitious of acquiring all the honour,” and hence overly impetuous.”  [Some even felt he was responsible for the war that proceeded from that initial conflict]. But, the colonial consensus was that Washington had been outnumbered by enemies who had been up to no good.”

“[Later] In 1755, Washington witnessed a far greater defeat, when an army led by British General Edward Braddock was cut to pieces outside Fort Duquesne, now Pittsburgh.  Washington, who was serving as Braddock’s aide, had two horses shot out from under him, led a remnant of men to safety, and buried his slain commander. …Washington spent three more years commanding the Virginia militia on the frontier, angling for a better assignment and seeking to maintain the discipline of his troops.”[3]

So, it seems on the one hand that during the French and Indian Washington failed to observe the very rules of civility that had assisted him in his social and military rise.  On author writes, "There is something unlikable about the George Washington of [this period]. He seems a trifle raw …too ready to complain, too nakedly concerned with promotion."[4]  But on the other hand, Washington grew in stature because he faced his failures, and in turn recognized and persisted in overcoming his own errors. And, there was no question that he was exceedingly brave in the face of danger and incredibly tough in battle.

Through time, occupied by diligent study, self-reflection and self-discipline Washington managed to bridle his temper and his ambition for personal fame and to place the interests of his countrymen above self. 

Also important to remember, is his courtship and marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis.  She was not only a beautiful, but a very wealthy widow of Virginia.  Martha fell in love and George found her quite attractive. (That she had a good disposition and inherited wealth were an added bonus to the relationship). He had had a crush on a pretty neighbor, Sally Fairfax, but when she married another, he knew he must find a suitable wife for himself.

Martha married George on January 6, 1759. The marriage changed George from being a comfortably well-off, country gentleman-soldier to becoming one of Virginia’s wealthiest landowners. He had resigned his commission in the militia and so, George, Martha, and her two children, Jacky (age 4), and Patsy (age 2), moved into the enlarged and remodeled Mt. Vernon. Her influence on Washington was lasting.

The next decade thrust Washington into the events that led to America’s war for Independence. His civility and modesty was exhibited when he accepted his commission as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775.  He told Congress that if “some unlucky event should happen unfavorable to my reputation, I beg it be remembered by every gentlemen in the room, that this day I declare…that I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”[5] 

During the Revolutionary War, and after, Washington grew in stature and wisdom. The ultimate growth and development of his character is probably best described by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the following in a letter fourteen years after Washington’s death:

“I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

His mind was great and powerful… and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. …He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.

His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. …He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. …His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback…. 

On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points Indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great…

For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a [new] government… and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example. . . .

We knew his honesty …

I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.’”[6]




[1]  Mason L. Weems, A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington (J.P. Lippincott Company, Philadelphia, 1918), p. 272.
[2]  Monmouth College Book Review of Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), http://department.monm.edu/history/urban/reviews/brookhiser.htm.
[3] Richard Brookhiser, Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father, (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996), pp. 22-23 (cited as Brookhiser).
[4]  Id. Guthrie, citing Marcus Cunliffe, George Washington: Man and Monument (Boston, 1958), p. 58.
[5]  James Thomas Flexner, George Washington, (Boston, 1965-72), vol. I, p. 341 (cited as JTF).
[6] Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Walter Jones, January 2, 1814, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, Washington D.C., 1903) (cited as “ME”), 14:48-52.