The Indispensable Man: G. Washington

(noon. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

This is a love story. It is about those heady days of falling madly in love with the tall, red-headed, and truly noble George Washington and how he gave me this wonderful gift: love of my country and love of the principles upon which it was built.

Those few days of reading Washington: The Indispensable Man by James Thomas Flexner are days that changed my life and imbued in me a love of country I never even considered before. I finally read the Constitution and fell in love with it and what Washington made of it…  leaving me with this urge not to interpret the document as much as save it from those lofty yet dusty and half-remembered places where ideals are kept. And to get others to read, consider it, and how Washington changed the world . . .

Breach time with me below the fold (and ladies, hold onto your hearts).

cross-posted at Daily Kos

PhotobucketWashington’s observance of the Constitution brought to brilliant life the ideas, philosophy, and laws in that document. Brilliant and simple:

We have now a National character to establish, and it is of the utmost importance to stamp favorable impressions upon it.” George Washington

This, then, is a journey to illuminate some essential things Washington did for “the welfare of … all mankind” and thereby defining the role of executive. He carried out his duties as president by transforming the ideas on paper into our national reality. And in his deeds, there is this, at last, to understand: Washington gave our Constitution its soul. The ideas live and breathe because Washington got it and lived by it. And he gave it to me… so I will share it with you, as free of opinion as I can keep it, because it’s always better to find meaning on your own. Well, except this, from Flexner:

It was the triumph of a man who knows how to learn, not in the narrow sense of studying other people’s conceptions, but in the transcendent sense of making a synthesis from the totality of experience.

For me, it really begins with the seminal act of Washington’s voluntary resignation as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army in 1783. He could have taken power; many would have willingly given it to him. He refused. He was Commander-in-Chief from 1775 to 1783.

The first time I cried reading Flexner’s biography of Washington was in his short and lovely retelling of the general’s emotional parting with his officers in Fraunces Tavern in New York City on December 4, 1783. It was just days after final victory in the Revolutionary War and Washington…

…filled his glass of wine and motioned for the decanters to go around. As the officers saw his hand shake and his lip tremble, the bitterness in their hearts was drowned by loved. The men who had fought so hard with Washington and suffered so deeply found tears in their eyes. With tears streaming down his own face, Washington embraced each separately, and then, the height of emotion having become unbearable, walked out of the room.

Washington’s dream was to retire from public life and live at his beloved Mount Vernon, on the banks of the Potomac.  In his heart, Washington knew the fragile patchwork of states was in trouble, so, in 1787, he traveled to Philadelphia to help organize the Constitutional Convention.

John Adams observed that Washington had the power of silence. Washington’s quiet, unobtrusive ways only magnified his stature, his overwhelming presence. I mean, think about this: from the start to the finish of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, as its president, Wasington said not one word, other than a lecture on secrecy. But from the first to last day, NOT ONE WORD as the delegates debated and discussed the language and mission of the Constitution and the nation. It was simply his presence that gave credibility to the proceedings. Flexner describes Washington’s use of power thus:

… I found a great and good man. In all history few men who possessed unassailable power have used that power so gently and self-effaciinglty for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind.

At its conclusion on September 17, 1787, George Washington was the first signer of the newly adopted Constitution for the United States of America.

The next milestone, an obvious one: Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States of America (by electors) in 1789 and in 1792.  John Adams was his vice-president. Washington’s first inauguration took place in New York City (the first capital from 1789 to 1790). His second inauguration took place in Philadelphia (the capital from 1790 to 1800). As president, Washington held that Article I of the Constitution gave policy-making powers to the Congress. This was the context for his development of the presidency and his vision for the executive’s relationship to the legislative branch.

Washington had a particular knack for perceiving genius in others and putting their ideas to good use. To this end, he formed the first cabinet and appointed polar opposites in two of the four original posts. Federalist Alexander Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury; Thomas Jefferson, a Republican, was Secretary of State.  Washington exploited their genius to forge policy from these opposite positions to serve citizens with beliefs and opinions as diverse as his cabinet. Flexner implies in his book that Washington’s ability to gain consensus using his strong centrist postion kept the nation from veering into extremism before the country matured.

Another important milestone in Washington’s presidency was keeping the nation out of the war that eruputed between England and France in 1792. Washington insisted that the United States remain neutral, refusing to let Hamilton, for the British, or Jefferson, for the French, drag the young country into war at the very time it needed to mature. After the war, Britain surrendered its forts in the northwest, and Spain opened the Mississippi to American commerce, which opened the West to settlement, another goal to which Washington had always been committed.

Washington left public life (for the most part) at the end of his second term. In his farewell address, he writes that a longer rule would give one man too much power. He also was concerned about dying in office and having the next president take office without being elected.

There are a few other important points. Washington’s view on slavery: I think he saw slavery as antithetical to the principles for which he fought in the Revolutionary War. However, he also believed a public fight against slavery would end all hopes of keeping the states united as one country. Washington decided to free his slaves upon Martha’s death and, to prepare them for this eventual freedom, they were taught trades and to read, write, and some math so that would have had the ability to earn a living.

It should also be noted that Washington was an avid conservationist and wrote at length about his concern of the agricultural practices of fellow farmers. Washington embarked on a system of agriculture that focused on the long-term productivity and conservation of his land at Mount Vernon.

And in true Washington style, he realized the importance of an American cultural identity. To that end, he collected American art and believed in promoting American artists and crafts.

In the end, with his wife at his side, the great man died at around 10:00 p.m. on December 14, 1799. And do you know, I cried my eyes out…

Alfred North Whitehead once said that there were only two instances in human history that he knew of when the leaders of an emergent empire performed as well as we, in retrospect, could ever expect. The first was Rome under Caesar Augustus. The second was the United States under George Washington. He was, of course, surrounded by other greats, but they all agreed that he was the indispensable man, and the greatest of them all.

NY Times review of Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington by Richard Brookhiser


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    • pfiore8 on January 14, 2010 at 21:31

    in vain

    had to post this!

  1. Umm…

    I think this is the best essay ever!

    Of course as a great admirer of GW and a fellow member of the Illuminati I may be a trifle prejudiced.

    • sharon on January 15, 2010 at 03:39

    i’m also jealous that you got to meet mr. hornbek. 😉

  2. FWIW, the city where I live (Lancaster, PA) was the capital for one day during the Revolutionary War, when — drum roll, please — GW actually did sleep here.

    A quick Google turned up this:

    Lancaster was our nation’s capital for one day when the Continental Congress met here in September 1777. The colonial government had withdrawn from the capital in Philadelphia to escape the approaching British troops, and stopped here for a day before moving on to York, Pennsylvania.

    BTW, York & Lancaster are supposed to be rivals (the White Rose vs. the Red Rose, from the English Wars of the Roses) but in reality…not so much.

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