I told you that Tim gave me a long biography of George Washington for Christmas. He was a name to me, of course, but with next to no content. (In Quebec, we studied very little American history)
Let me tell you what most interested me about his life – at least his life as set forth by one biographer, Ron Chernow. Chernow attempts balance as every good biographer does, but I would say his political sympathies are definitely with ‘big government’ thinkers. I think this colors his appreciation of the issues that emerge as Washington switches from military to political power.
My niece, Jo, wanted to know what I think of various American presidents, so, Jo – this one is for you!
What surprised me most:
1) I had no idea that the Continental Army labored under such disadvantages while fighting the British. I knew they had hard times but was astounded to learn that they routinely lacked food, shelter and clothing. I did not know that much of the population preferred to sell their food and their wares to the British. I was unaware that much of the citizenry vacillated as to which side to support, especially as the Continental Army had few early victories.
2) Adding to the above, I was amazed to learn that Washington lacked even gunpowder at times – a fact he hid from people and officers alike for two reasons: to support morale and to prevent the British from finding out this important fact.
3) I did not know that the French alliance was key to the eventual success of the Continental forces. This is not to the shame of that army. How could they have taken on both British sea and land power alone at that point?
4) I had never understood that the determination and commitment of Washington was what kept this little army intact until it could eventually – along with the French – fight its final, successful battles against the British.
5) I did not know that Washington was truly venerated by both people and leaders even before assuming the presidency. This was based largely on a character perceived as incorruptible.
6) The implicit trust in his integrity meant that the framers of early government structures were willing to leave them somewhat vague. They trusted Washington to fill in the details with the best interest of the country in mind. They would not have trusted any other leader in this way.
7) The country, from the beginning, was broken into two general categories: those who wanted a strong central bank that could assume debt, a professional army, and a strong central government generally – with a strong executive branch in particular. The chief proponents of this were Washington himself and Alexander Hamilton. It was generally the ‘northern’ perspective, the ‘Federalist’ view.
And there were those who greatly feared all of the above. They wanted limited federal power, a dominant Congress, (instead of a dominant Executive branch) states rights, and no central bank or federal debt. This position was held by Jefferson and Madison. It was the ‘southern’ perspective. the ‘Republican’ one.
8) Washington came to identify himself so much with the former – the Federalists – that he decided he would move north if the Union did not survive.
9) Jefferson maintained that Washington did not understand economics enough to see how dangerous the notion of a central bank was, He blamed Alexander Hamilton for influencing him in this direction.
10) Washington’s own financial interests were adversely affected by the time he took to serve his country. (Though he tended to overspend, anyway) He struggled financially all his life.
11) As Washington assumed strong central power and filled in details of how the Constitution was actually to function – what it ‘meant’, he very much formed the nation.
12) He therefore was, indeed, the “Father of His Nation”.
13)He astounded the world by obtaining and laying down supreme military power, then achieving and retiring from the pinnacle of political power – all as the nation had trusted he would do.
14)Therefore, “First in peace, first in war, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Americans, what do you think?