Your History Moment: Father of His Country


George Washington

George Washington

Happy Birthday, George Washington, pioneer, surveyor, inventor, soldier, statesman, first President of the United States. I grew up in a country that venerated our first president, and time has done little to tarnish his image. I respect the courage and sacrifice it took to lead the rough and tumble gang of militia from being several disconnected and chaotic gangs of short-term armed rabble to the instrument of war that became the Continental Army.

Why does this man have such a hold on our affections, even to this day?   Because of the moral courage and rigid self-discipline he displayed all his life.  There have been plenty of modern history works that take potshots at our founding fathers– portraying them in less than glowing terms so that the reader can see the whole man, warts and all.  Such a work was McCullough’s JOHN ADAMS, recently turned into an excellent miniseries on HBO.  Adams was a complicated man, as McCullough portrays him, and not above self-interest.   Yet he was also a great man, and it took just as much moral courage for him to do the dog-work of building a nation as it took for Washington to lead the Continental Army.  Somehow, Washington consistently avoids being tarnished by revisionist historians seeking to breathe new life into an old subject.  I recently read HIS EXCELLENCY by Joseph Ellis, and everything you  might expect from the new breed of historian seeking the warts and all approach was there: political and family patronage in the young Virginia colony, political maneuvering, self-promotion, slaveowning, marrying for profit, and other things.  A fascinating and worthwhile biography of a man who left little personal papers (of his early life, in any rate) for historians and biographers to build upon.  With all that acknowledged, Washington remains a product of his century and STILL is deserving of the accolades history has heaped upon him.  It took personal and moral courage to make such a public break with England at the time.  The Founding Fathers often were one jump ahead of the hangman’s noose.  For such a prominent and already wealthy Virginia planter to throw his lot in with this rabble of political animals from New England– it’s as if George Bush suddenly joined the Peace Corps and started building houses for poor people in New Guinea.  Possible, sure, but highly unlikely.  Once Washington volunteered to lend both his services and his prestige to leading the Continental Militia (and later national Army), he did not shrink from the hardship, nor the task ahead.  Centuries later, the mind still has a hard time grasping the obvious facts of the matter.  A divided organization of colonies, nowhere holding a universal majority of opinion on whether to break from the parent country, sets out to enter into hostilities with the Super Power of the day, using a motley carnival of state troops armed with almost nothing, with no uniforms, no logistical experience, and hardly any artillery or cavalry.  Washington grasped, early on, that he had to discard the European notions of victory on the battlefield and battlefield control.  To ultimately win against the British, he had to keep his army alive and avoid losing.  Just that…  against a force of overwhelming power, with supreme (almost arrogant) control of the seaways, and a burgeoning force of German mercenaries at its disposal.  ANY man would have been daunted.  George Washington certainly was.  But he rarely showed it.  Victory was a long, hard slog and yet he endured the struggle with a supernatural calm and rigid self-control that rarely seems to have faltered.  From the snippets left by biographers and memoir writers, Washington, the general, rarely demonstrated anger– but when he did, it was monumentally well deserved.  When the time came to make peace with Great Britain, Washington was adamant that our former foes be treated amicably and honorably.  He realized we would not benefit as a nation by making an enduring enemy of our former parent country.   His foreign policy, such as it was in the first years of the Republic, did what it could to reestablish ties with the UK and France whilst staying manifestly unconcerned with their internal troubles– a foreign policy stance that would not radically change for decades. 
So hats off to General Washington, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.  In the person of George Washington, the man and his hour were met, and our country can continue to be thankful for that happy alignment of the planets that brough the man and his times together.  Happy birthday, George!
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2 responses to “Your History Moment: Father of His Country

  1. Great men are resented by the rest because the great man is by definition a reproach to the rest.

    Having gone through “the paper chase” — that is the pursuit of the PhD through the Belly of the Beast of Academia, I can speak from a certain authority through experience with regard to “revisionist” historians and the habit of “trashing” the great ones. It really is quite simple. People like Washington, (or Mozart, Darwin, and others) are, by their very existinance a reproach to the mediocrities who fill our universities. These very little puny men, who prove the old axiom- “them as can does– thems as can’t — teach” — are incapable of by inner cowardice of anything except falling short of their own potential.
    It is a hostility bred of envy and resentment.

    It is always humbling to realize how inadequate I am by contemplating that at my age Mozart had been dead for 30 years.

  2. My favorite tale about George Washington is that he showed up to the Continental Congress meetings wearing his uniform, every day, just so everyone else would know that he was ready and willing to lead the army. I am always amazed that the British never once tried to retaliate against Washington by raising Mount Vernon. It was no secret where the commanding general lived. It would have been an easy target. Even in the War of 1812 when the British burned Washington and sacked Alexandria (since Washington had nothing of value) they never touched Mount Vernon.