Sunday, July 5, 2009

George Washington: Thinking about the American Revolution

“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 character gave effulgence to his public virtues…Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.”
Eulogy for George Washington by Congress Henry Lee (Father of Robert E. Lee)

Note: Today, we will start to examine several of our founding fathers who were men of action, but not necessarily among those whose ideas laid the intellectual foundations for the American Revolution and our new country. We might well think of these men as the being the engineers who build an assembly line rather than the inventors who conceptualized the product in the first place. These were the nation builders and we shall start with the most notable of them all: George Washington…

George Washington, often referred to as the “Father of our Country” since as early as 1778, was a notable military leader and public servant. Above all, Washington considered himself a planter and a landowner. He served in the military as a British officer during the ‘French and Indian War’ (1754-1759), the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the ‘Revolutionary War’ (1775-1783), and the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armies formed in possible deployment against the French (1798); in 1976, the year of our bicentennial, President Gerald Ford and the U.S. Congress awarded Washington the rank of ‘General of the Armies,’ a five-star general. For almost any man, this would have been considered a complete career. His military service during the ‘Revolutionary War’ was respected even by the English where the British Parliament praised his effort to raise above those manipulations of a politician.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master. Never for a moment should it be left to irresponsible action.”
— George Washington

As a public servant, Washington arose to a similar high level of achievement in defining our new government. He was a member of the House of Burgesses (the Virginia Legislature) after the ‘French and Indian War.’ He was a delegate to both the 1st and 2nd Continental Congress as well as the Constitutional Convention; he was named the presiding officer. Upon the ratification of the United States Constitution he earned the unanimous vote of the electors to become the 1st President of these United States; he also received a unanimous vote for his second term – the only president to have done so. In this role as president, he did much to define the mechanics of the executive branch of the new government; he selected highly skilled men to assume the various positions in his cabinet. This enabled him to launch this new country on a firm fiscal and diplomatic footing.

“Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.”
— George Washington

In the years between the wars and public service positions he returned to his beloved Mt. Vernon and took up his role as a planter. He initially raised tobacco, but later switched over to wheat which could be sold within the colonies. Yes, he was a lifetime slave owner, but granted all of his slaves their freedom upon his death. He exemplified the ‘gentleman patriot’ who was dedicated to his beloved country by coming to its support in times of need, but returning to his home between time – a unique way of not being a career soldier or politician. He was drafted to become the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and later to become the 1st President.

"It may be laid down as a primary position, and the basis of our system, that every Citizen who enjoys the protection of a Free Government, owes not only a proportion of his property, but even of his personal services to the defense of it"
— George Washington

This was a man who believed in liberty, but did not seek glory for himself. Let’s take a closer look at some of his contributions…

George Washington (1732 – 1799)

“The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
— George Washington
(1776) in “Address to the Continental Army” before Battle of Long Island

Was he a great military tactician? Probably not! But he was a leader who made the effort to take a ‘rag tag’ set of citizen soldiers and molded them into a fighting force that was able to defeat the greatest military power of the time – the British Army and Navy. Did he do this alone? No, he was able to draw on the skills of his support officers to accomplish a nearly impossible task, even while some of these officers were seeking to replace him as the Commander-in-Chief. This army fought numerous notable battles, including those at Saratoga, Yorktown, Trenton, Brandywine Creek and Long Island. Did he always in his battles? No, but he learned from his defeats and rallied his troops by riding up and down the lines like the Roman generals. He used the taxing winter at Valley Forge to retrain his troops and prepare them for the coming battles. But through all of these trials, Washington held his troops together to fight another day and eventually prevailed to win the war.

“Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.”
Letter of Instructions to the Captains of the Virginia Regiments (1759)

As a politician, he used many of the same skills. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington presided over the debates about how a new constitution was to be structured. While he did not directly participate in the debates directly, he used the power of his person to help forge the many compromises that were necessary to arrive at a final constitution. These compromises included: northern vs. southern, large vs. small states, how to count the slave populations for determining representation, state’s rights vs. federal rights and how to guarantee personal rights and freedoms. Any one of these issues could have created a deadlock the congress and blocked the completion of the document. By his skillful management, Washington was able to get the various factions to compromise and write a final document. This was no small feat!

When the new United States Constitution was finally ratified by all thirteen states, he once again was called into the service of his country. He was reluctant, but heeded this call; he was elected as the 1st President of these United States by a unanimous vote of the electors. As such, he was given the awesome task to take this Constitution, a blueprint of a new form of government, and make it work! He selected strong, competent men to assume the various cabinet positions, and he had to mediate between the strong Federalist, Alexander Hamilton, and the Democrat, Thomas Jefferson, and make the government operate efficiently. It needs to be remembered that there were no operating instructions that came with the Constitution!

“Happy, thrice happy shall they be pronounced hereafter, who have contributed any thing, who have performed the meanest office in erecting this stupendous fabrick of Freedom and Empire on the broad basis of Independency; who have assisted in protecting the rights of humane nature and establishing an Asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”
— George Washington, General Orders (1783)

Washington had to define the executive branch, set fiscal policies, and set the diplomatic policy. He supported the levying of taxes, founding of the National Bank while also setting a course of neutrality in international relations. At this time, the British and French were again in conflict; he wanted to avoid getting entangled with this conflict. During the second phase of the French Revolution, the ‘Reign of Terror,’ the United States withdrew support for the French government. Other issues to be dealt with were related to freedom of religion and the role of political parties. This was a formidable task, but Washington accomplished it during his two terms in office.

In the end, Washington retired to his Mt. Vernon home for his remaining years. This set the pattern for all presidents up to the time of FDR, who was elected to four terms. The 22nd Amendment to the Constitution set a two-term limit into law. This was just a sample of the example with which Washington set the traditions and rules of the executive branch.

“It is of infinite moment, that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the Palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion, that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.”
George Washington in his “Farewell Address” (1796)

George Washington, THANK YOU for your courage, wisdom, perseverance, and example. We have become a strong nation by heeding your example and your directions in your ‘Farewell Address’ upon the completion of your service. For all this, we owe you our love, gratitude and eternal thanks.

Next Time: We continue this series by considering the role of James Madison and his contributions. Join us for that exploration…

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