Richard Brookhiser, FOUNDING FATHER, Rediscovering George Washington
Modern intellectuals, with their ignorance and contempt of the past, have condemned Washington to the realm of children's stories. They have destroyed his reputation with simple statements: he was a rich man, he was a slaveholder, he was a womanizer, he was cold and unfeeling, he was nothing more than a figurehead. It was as if the pendulum had swung from nineteenth-century adulation to twentieth-century skepticism, cynicism, and smugness. This is the attitude that Brookhiser takes head-on. Noting that great statesmen are rare enough, he comments that today we have gone even further, to "believe that they are mythical, like unicorns."
Brookhiser's biography is not a "life" of George Washington. That has been written by fine scholars whose books are opened most often today only by other scholars. Brookhiser, instead, writes what he calls a "moral biography" in the tradition of Plutarch; and like Plutarch, he organizes his study into discrete sections: his public actions, his private life, and an assessment of the man and his achievements. He means for his book to have an impact on the public appreciation of the man who seems to have been first placed upon a pedestal, then neglected, and finally despised. To our loss. There is nothing our age needs as much as an authentic hero, and few men and women in all of history, if any, fulfill the role better than George Washington.
Nothing came easily to Washington. When he was named Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, his officers were inexperienced, his men undisciplined. Time after time the troops were outmaneuvered and outfought--when Washington could get them to stand and fight long enough to be beaten. When he presided over the Constitutional Convention, the delegates were badly divided. When he became president, there was less administrative tradition and experience than there were theories about the nature of government and of men, and he faced an immediate crisis in the wars of the French Revolution. Had America been a nation of saints, anybody could have been the Founding Father. However, among the 3,000,000 Americans then living, there was but one Washington. He was the indispensable man.
But what made him indispensable? Brookhiser posits three characteristics. First, there was his physical appearance. In an era of short men and poor medical knowledge, Washington was tall, healthy, and vigorous. To his natural strength he added perfect posture, self-control, and studied dignity. When he walked among his officers, nobody had to ask who was in command; when he rode a horse, he was the model of control and grace; when he danced, everyone marveled at the balance of talent and training. Strong? The width of the Rappahannock may vary, but the height of the Natural Bridge in the Shenandoah Valley remains 215 ft. today. We cannot encourage anyone to attempt to duplicate Washington's having thrown a rock up to it, but experienced baseball players might look up at it and wonder if he would not have made a marvelous centerfielder.
Second and third were his ideas on morality and government--ideas which were not as far apart as his contemporaries (and ours) wished us to believe, and, therefore, have to be discussed together. Underneath everything lay Washington's desire for a good reputation. Some acts were simply dishonorable, some bad manners, and others merely stupid. A gentleman who wanted respect avoided all three as best he could. The preventives were called honesty and courage, courtesy and civility, and the combination of reading, intelligent observation, and fore-thought. One avoided thoughtless words and promises by saying little, drinking less, and by an unwavering politeness to friends and enemies alike. This was not easy for Washington, for he was a sensitive man who possessed a fiery temper and he had an exquisite vocabulary of unprintable words which could be effectively employed on the proper occasions. All the more reason for his exercising his famous self-control.
Washington had the big man's self-confidence, the easy laugh, the consciousness of always being on display, but he not disturbed by the public intrusions into his everyday life. He enjoyed company, was an active sportsman, and a conscientious manager. It helped that he was reared an aristocrat, with an awareness of the importance of social life, a thorough knowledge of proper manners, and an appropriate stock of small talk. These virtues too often mislead modern readers to conclude that he was shallow. An athlete's grace, a monarch's charm, a politician's readiness for any situation make the difficult seem simple, the deepest fords easy to cross. Washington was all three, or could have been.
Washington's political ideas have become platitudes, so commonplace that we do not recognize them as his. Well-read rather than widely-read, conversant in the original sense of the word with the great constitutional thinkers of America, Washington's deep belief in the need for self-government led him to risk his life and fortune in his country's service--without ambition for enrichment, offices, or titles. (Fame is another matter.) At the Constitutional Convention, he guided the oft-meandering discussions back to the main stream, and as president he was aware that every day he set precedents. His precepts live on despite our best efforts to subvert them. It was not Washington Post reporters who brought down Richard Nixon. It was the memory of George Washington and his confession about the cherry tree: "Father, I cannot tell a lie."
Washington was a universalist in political theory. If nature's law applied in England, it applied in America; if it applied here, it applied elsewhere. The main issue was education of the public. Hence, his support of a national university, best founded right in the nation's capitol, where students could observe the statesmen of a free republic gravely debating the nation's business. Even though he was disappointed in Congress' behavior, he remained a realist, who understood that these particular laws of nature were executed by men; moreover, by men unaccustomed to the tasks and temptations facing them. He understood that men, like a fine horse, needed guidance--and not the spur, but a firm and gentle hand. In his Farewell Address (a document that the author recommends for wider and closer study) Washington's long third paragraph praises the generosity of Providence, the richness of the land, the opportunities that await, and the knowledge available (thanks to what we today call the Age of the Enlightenment), but he concludes with the terse and gloomy warning that if the citizens of United States are not completely free and happy, it will be their own fault.
It was in this very mood that he contemplated the central paradox of American history, that men who had just made themselves free continued to hold slaves. Others had slaves--several European states which did not have domestic slavery permitted it on their sugar islands, Africans sold slaves, Turks bought them, and Chinese felt free to castrate theirs. But these others had no political philosophy based on the principle of liberty. Washington could only divide his actions into public and private spheres--while remaining acutely aware that these spheres overlapped. As Commanding General of the Army, he would do nothing unless sanctioned by Congress (his was not the way of Cromwell). As President, he would do nothing that would split the new nation. Slavery was simply too heated an issue to attempt to resolve at this moment. As a private person, he had to be concerned with his livelihood. His various attempts to find ways of managing Mount Vernon without slaves all failed. The best he could do was to avoid buying slaves as best he could and never to sell a slave. The slaves who had served him as president were freed so quietly that the fact was not discovered until a recent biographer went through his private papers. His treatment of the slaves at Mount Vernon was exemplary--there is no credible evidence of his ever having slept with slaves or mistreated them; moveover, they were freed upon Martha's death and the older slaves were given pensions. This was not a heroic solution, but it was more than reconciling oneself to live forever with an existing evil. He had done what he could and, as suggested by the third paragraph of his Farewell Address, the rest was up to the nation.
Although his resolution of the slavery issue was unsatisfactory, it gives us deep insights into Washington's innermost thoughts. Had he been a political radical determined to end every oppression on the face of the earth or die in the process, he would have been a failure. Had he been unconcerned with the problem of liberty, he would have stayed home when called to serve. Instead, Washington was a man who believed in process and progress: unless his generation grounded the principles of liberty solidly in political life and on a foundation of moral principles, nothing could be achieved; but once such a government was in existence and the moral principles universally accepted, nothing could prevent their being logically extended to include others outside the original compact. First principles demanded that the country be firmly established; afterward, steps could be taken to rectify failings in the human institutions of society. Washington's task was to found the nation. Brookhiser demonstrates that the title Founding Father was apt then, and apt now.
One could not anticipate a future filled with tall men or even the assistance of Providence. What can compensate for all shortcomings is character. Character is developed by training--based on moral concepts of what constitutes good and evil, and hard discipline along proven lines to prepare oneself to deal with the temptations that both will bring--and models of behavior, good and bad, with appropriate lessons from each drawn from history. Washington left us the example of a good man's complete life. Unlike some of our other great figures, he did not die prematurely. His was a full career--varied, challenging, frustrating, rewarding. Yet nothing distinguished his various careers and triumphs as his leaving them behind. From command of the Continental Army, he went home; from the Constitutional Convention, back to private life; and once again after two terms as president he retired to Mount Vernon. So rare was this characteristic among public figures that for a comparison contemporaries had to scour history to find the semi-historical Cincinnatus in Ancient Rome.
What he left us, his true posterity (he had no children of his own), includes an awareness of a parent's true role: one cannot be a father (to remain within the metaphor) without governing one's children; one cannot govern others unless one can govern oneself; one can govern oneself only by adhering to unchanging principles of right and wrong. Today we seem to be floundering in a moral morass, unsure of principle, resentful of restraints, scorning all types of patriarchy. Washington lives to remind us that liberty does not involve being freed from duty, good manners, or laws.
Even his death was appropriate to a man steeped in good manners and civility: in contrast to Stalin and Hitler, Washington died with dignity. No contemporary disagreed with Henry Lee's summary of Washington's significance: "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."