Thursday, August 05, 2010

George Washington: Greatest American President?

[Belated Post]

Reading books here is an excellent way to drift off into some other land while you are stuck waiting for a tro-tro or can't get to sleep when you know 9PM is way past your bedtime. There were a few books that came over with me and it seems that the stack is getting lighter and lighter with each passing week. The latest book that has drawn to a close was a biography on George Washington by Henry Cabot Lodge.

What a man.

As it should be understood from the outset, I have favored Abraham Lincoln as the bearer of the title “Greatest President” that this country has had and the site is named for a bit of his speech during the second inaugural, so I am still heavily biased towards Lincoln.

Yet I didn't have much appreciation for Washington. His tales from the history book lessons I had as a young student don't stick much beyond the war hero saga and his taking up the oath to be the first President of these United States. My opinion of the greatest President is a bit more divided after having read this book. He lead an incredible life and conducted himself in the most impressive way imaginable.

I tend to put Lincoln in the top-most echelon because of a certain humanity that he expressed and a personality that is truly touching to my consciousness. He really cared for the people that he represented and wished only to do what he thought best and prudent for the American people.

Yet what I can see in Washington is an almost identical passion to do the right thing each and every time the opportunity presented itself. It just does not do the man's life justice to write up a bulleted list of his feats but one does need to comprehend what he accomplished. He led forces against Indian tribes at a time when most of us think of junior year in college. He was lauded for his efforts and returned home to continue his work on the plantation. When the British began to agitate the colonies Washington displayed a forward-looking view that the colonies were self-sufficient, and in by being so, ought to be self-governed. He didn't need to wait until a Declaration of Independence to know that the time was short for Britain to lay her demands on thirteen subservient colonies. He applauded the efforts of those dissenters in Boston from the outset and made sure that if his talents were needed that they would be willingly given.

Called to lead the Continental Army, he faced a daunting enemy with practically no support to speak of. The Congress which he dealt with was constantly looking to him to bring a single superlative victory over the well-equipped adversary while at the same time offering almost nothing by way of military supplies and necessities. The conditions which Washington endured would be sufficient for him to be included in the pantheon of great Americans even if he hadn't engineered a strategy that offered that final victory. That he did manage this is astonishing. His mind was incredibly capable of surveying and maximizing advantages just as it was deft in analyzing and measuring the men he commanded. When he made a choice for command it almost always resulted in positive outcomes. When Congress chose the commander it was sure to follow that the political appointment offered disappointment and battlefield losses.

During the war he never said the forces of the British were sure to win, but he would offer frank reports of the conditions he faced and what he would do to keep the struggle alive to the Continental Congress. His mind was fixed on the goal of American freedom and he would not waver from it, and on at least one occasion rode straight into the fire of the enemy to command his troops to stand and fight. The man had courage enough to outfit an entire battalion. He commanded an entire army on the equivalent of a shoestring, and often chose to spend his own money where he could to help.

So his legacy is already deeply carved in American lore. That is prior to him putting his full support and backbone behind the new Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and to become the country's first elected President. Do we need to go further?

Yes. He mastered the battlefield and he chose to master the political field which next came into focus. The author pointed out that Washington had an incredibly quick mind to assess and direct the men he encountered in life. For the most part, he chose the first members of his cabinet with considerable acumen and foresight. It is indeed hard to imagine a President today having two future Presidents in his cabinet. By no means could he have known that both men would come to dominate political factions for generations to come, but it is to his credit that he was able to form a government that aligned itself to solidify the new nation. It was his stamp of approval that held the nation together when divisions started to separate the people apart.

The post has run long, so I will spare more details of his Presidency for you to read on your own, but as the book came to a close, Henry Cabot Lodge closed with this paragraph and I wanted to capture it as a perfect summary of his biography:

"As I bring these volumes to a close I am conscious that they speak, so far as they speak at all, in a tone of almost unbroken praise of the great man they attempt to portray. If this be so, it is because I could come to no other conclusions. For many years I have studied minutely the career of Washington, and with every step the greatness of the man has grown upon me, for analysis has failed to discover the act of his life which, under the conditions of the time, I could unhesitatingly pronounce to have been an error. Such has been my experience, and although my deductions may be wrong, they at least have been carefully and slowly made. I see in Washington a great soldier who fought a trying war to a successful end impossible without him; a great statesman who did more than all other men to lay the foundations of a republic which has endured in prosperity for more than a century. I find in him a marvelous judgment which was never at fault, a penetrating vision which beheld the future of America when it was dim to other eyes, a great intellectual force, a will of iron, an unyielding grasp of facts, and an unequaled strength of patriotic purpose. I see in him too a pure and high-minded gentleman of dauntless courage and stainless honor, simple and stately of manner, kind and generous of heart. Such he was in truth. The historian and the biographer may fail to do him justice, but the instinct of mankind will not fail. The real hero needs not books to give him worshipers. George Washington will always hold the love and reverence of men because they see embodied in him the noblest possibilities of humanity."

Well said. I don't have permission for that excerpt, so please contact me if it needs to come down. Washington was an incredible individual and it would do us all well to review his story and emulate his character. Maybe I can reserve a space for a tie at the top of the Greatest President Ever debate between Washington and Lincoln. I owe our first President that much.

If I were to have my pick of the next book, it would be on Alexander Hamilton. His tenure at the Treasury Department and his life in general is a fascinating tale even when told from the second-hand stories of Washington's life. That or another president of course.

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