George Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and First in the Hearts of Nine Percent of his Countrymen
Feb. 16, 2009
When George Washington died in 1799, the country was shocked. No one expected the apparently hearty 67-year old former President to die so suddenly. We felt orphaned. The outpouring of grief was nearly universal. Even bitter political rivals vied with each other in paying tribute to the “Father of our Country.” General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee of Virginia eulogized Washington as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
No more. The latest Gallup Poll shows a close race for greatest American President. Ronald Reagan tops the list, with 24 percent citing him as first. John Kennedy ties with Abraham Lincoln at 22 percent. George Washington registers and anemic nine percent. George W. Bush might feel a bit relieved.
This used to be the week of Washington’s Birthday. As little children, we would cut out little construction paper hatchets to remind us how Washington told the truth. His father, legend had it, confronted him with a chopped-down cherry tree. Young George had supposedly cut it down with his new hatchet. “Father, dear, I cannot tell a lie; it was I,” said the straightforward stripling. Most historians today pooh-pooh that idea. But when I was a lad, I carved my initials in my parents’ dining room table with my Cub Scout knife. I remember that my father’s pain was eased only by his relief that I admitted my guilt. The cherry tree story always had special meaning for me.
It made me laugh when I read Mark Twain. A hundred years after his death, Washington was still revered in this country. “I’m a better man than George Washington,” Twain told stunned audiences, “He couldn’t tell a lie. I can, but I won’t.”
George Washington put his life on the line for his country, not once, but repeatedly. He faced death on the Pennsylvania frontier in 1755 during the French & Indian War. His commanding officer, General Braddock was shot down. Young Colonel Washington had to rally the troops and get them home. Later, he would tell his brother there were four bullet holes in his coat.
During the American Revolution, Washington led from the front. At Princeton, he charged right into the mouth of British cannons. His young aide covered his eyes with his hat, certain that General Washington would be killed. Minutes later, Washington came galloping out of the smoke, and gave what then passed for a “high five” to Col. Fitzgerald.
After the war, Washington walked uninvited into a meeting of discontented Continental Army officers at Newburgh, New York. The army had not been paid. Some Members of Congress were taking bribes from the French to slow down the final peace treaty. There was ugly talk of a military takeover, getting justice at the point of a bayonet. Washington stepped into the midst of their meeting. Seeing that he had not convinced them with his words, he fumbled in his pockets for a letter, a message from a Congressman that might convince them with its eloquence. Most of his officers had never seen him wear spectacles before. Sensing their surprise, Washington politely asked their patience: “You’ll forgive me, gentlemen, for I have grown not only gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Knowing it was true, knowing he had endured everything for them, with them, many hardened veterans broke down in tears. The mutiny collapsed. America has never again faced the danger of a military coup d’etat.
With the war over, would Washington return to his farm, to his plow, like the Roman hero Cincinnatus? Or would he use the Army to take the reins of power, like Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell? He sternly rebuked Army officers who had urged him to become a king. He stiffly turned aside suggestions that he seize control of the government. Washington went to Annapolis at Christmas time in 1783, determined to resign his commission to Congress. He had always respected civil authority. Amazed at his willingness to lay down his authority, his former enemy, King George III said:
“If he does that, he truly will be the greatest man on earth.”
Washington returned to politics, reluctantly, in 1787. He agreed to chair the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. There, he spent five months, mostly silent, while the greatest graduate seminar in political theory, economics, and constitutionalism swirled around him. Only Washington could have been the unanimous choice for the first President. His two terms were not at all an easeful retirement. They were filled with violent controversy. Once, a torch-bearing mob appeared in front of the President’s house with a model guillotine, jeering the dignified Washington. Washington asked nothing from his countrymen but respect. Didn’t we owe him that?
Today, that question remains. Don’t we owe him more, he who gave everything for us?
Ronald Reagan said it well when he left the White House. Warning of a loss of historical memory, he said: “If we forget what we did, we will forget who we are.” Nothing less is at stake in our forgetting the Father of our Country. Without reverence for George Washington, we are not Americans; we are just resident aliens.