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George Washington: Founding Father, Essay Example

Pages: 7

Words: 1996

Essay

Man of the People: George Washington and the Politics of Virtue

For most of us, America’s Founding Fathers are instantly recognizable icons. Intrepid and cerebral aristocrats, they gaze serenely from venerable portraits or Olympian monuments to their historic achievements.  Perhaps no figure in American history is more venerable, more iconic, than George Washington.

In Reintroducing George Washington: Founding Father, Richard Brookhisersets out to show that the man who “helped bring about a transformation of the American government, from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution” (p. 11),was a first-rate statesman, a man whose personal, human traits were as valuable to the delicate work of the country’s Constitutional Convention as was the personal stature he lent to the new nation as its first president.  A lesser man, one content with the stature that came with great military accomplishments, may have been content to merely preside, to allow political bickering and hair-splitting to threaten what faith and force of will had forged during six years of hardship and bloodshed.

Not so Washington, who drew on a reserve of political subtlety learned as a representative in Virginia’s House of Burgesses to help guide the greatdebate that followed independence.  George Washington was that rare phenomenon, a man whom character, opportunity and crisis appoint to fill a role absolutely no one else can.That a group of such mercurial and argumentative statesmen and political theorists would have unanimously elected him (or anyone) to lead Congress and the new country through the contentious proceedings that followed the war tells us that menwho were, by nature, inclined to argue over the minutest detail, were in completeconcord when it came to George Washington.

They knew that Washingtonwas suited to lead, to hold together the fragile American union.  What likely escaped the notice of most delegates was that Washington’s demeanor concealed a keen grasp of human nature and a timely knack for theaterand manipulation.  Washington the icon embodied America’s Republican values and stoic self-image. Washington the man was scrupulously concerned with the niceties of the drawing room and dance floor.  Brookhiser’s superb quote says it best –“(Washington) was influenced by Roman notions of nobility, but he was even more deeply influenced by a list of table manners and rules for conversation compiled by Jesuits” (p. 12).

Much of Washington’s early life is unknown to us.  That he came from the Virginia planter gentry is evident from his status as wealthy land owner(and slave owner) and from his 16 years of service in the House of Burgesses prior to the Revolution.  The skills he learned in Virginia’s lower house helped prepare him for the role he would play in Congress, much as his military service in the French and Indian War provided valuable “on-the-job” training in the cagey, fox-and-hounds military strategy he would eventually employ against the British army.

Politician, motivator and manipulator

These experiences,both military and political, left him with an understanding of the need to motivate others to act in the general (and sometimes in Washington’s) interest.  Any experienced politician would agree that the ability to manipulate is indispensable.  However, acknowledging that Washington resorted to such tactics flies in the face of popular beliefs in his steadfastness and imperviousness to external pressures.  Yet Brookhiser points out that

Washington, who was “constantly requesting, cajoling and complaining” to Congress during the direst days of the Revolutionary War, nevertheless had a fine sense of the line between “entreaty and compulsion”(p.39).  His frequent communications with Congress during the war are obedient and cordial, but also insistent andmorally leveraging.  He’s simply reminding them of what they know to be right.

Washington’s response to the army’s crisis of 1783may have been his personal tour de force.  Lack of pay had pushed the army to the brink of revolt.  Sensing the discontent among the officers as well as the rank and file, Washington called an official meeting.  Here we see Washington’s understanding of human nature and his ability to manipulate strong feelings to serve his needs.  Or, as Brookhiser puts it, “he then proceeded to summon the passions for his own ends (p. 43).”

As he addressed the officers, the commander-in-chief told them he wanted to read a letter that demonstrated Congress was not their enemy.  As he fumbled with the letter, he reached for his reading glasses and said, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country” (p. 44).  For the men who had come to revere Washington for sharing in their privations and misery, for never having taken leave during seven years of war, it was truly powerful theater.  Regardless of Washington’s true motive or means, it worked.  There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

The incipient mutiny was over, the danger was past.  One is hard-pressed to find an example from antiquity of a charismatic leader relying solely on pathos to put down unrest among the troops.  Caesar may have had the love and respect of his men but for all his professions of admiration for the legions who fought his battles, Caesar’swillingness to show clemency and generosity cloaked an omnipresent threat of punishment.

It is small wonder that Washington’s service in the Virginia assembly and seven years spent constantly motivating unpaid and underfed troops had made him a master of understated persuasion.  When he was elected to head the new Congress, he came to the job with a clear sense of how to do business on the legislative/political stage.

Stature, subtlety and temper

Experience had taught Washington that one word was better than two when it came to politics.  “Speak seldom,” he told a nephew who was new to legislative politics.  “Never exceed a decent warmth, and submit your sentiments with diffidence” (p. 65-66).  After observing Washington and Benjamin Franklin in action, Jefferson noted that both had become masters at accomplishing more by saying less.

“I never heard either of them speak ten minutes at a time, nor to any but the main point” Jefferson said.  “They laid their shoulders to the great points, knowing that the little ones would follow of themselves” (p. 66).

Washington evidently took pride in the ability to keep people guessing and saw himself as a man whose expressions didn’t betray his thoughts and feelings.Near the end of his presidency, the wife of the British ambassador told Washington she could see in his face how much he welcomed the idea of retirement. “You are wrong,” Washington replied.  “My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings” (p.5).

Yet, Washington spent a lifetime trying to control a spirited temper.  As a teenager, his relative and employer, Thomas, Lord Fairfax, told Washington’s mother that her son had a problem controlling his anger.  In middle age his fiery naturecould still flare, as subordinate officers Alexander Hamilton and Charles Leecould (and did) attest during the Revolution.  In fact, Hamilton wrote that Washington was “remarkable (neither) for delicacy nor for good temper” (p. 116-117).

The pursuit of virtue

Temper, manipulation and concealed emotions are characteristics that bring Washington out of the pantheon and place him among us, ascribing to him traits with which we all can identify.  As Brookhiser explains in his chapter on Washington’s morals, his unfailing adherence to virtues with which all of the founders strongly identified are another matter.  This is ground in which many of the legends about Washington are rooted, such as the felled cherry tree, about which young George refused to lie.

This is one of the most interesting and revealing parts of Brookhiser’s book.  In it, he explains how strongly the founders identified with the Romans, whom they viewed as morally virtuous and politically successful (p. 122).  The Greeks, in spite of having invented Democracy, were seen as having failed to sustain a Republic, an accomplishment the Romans maintained for centuries.

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by Revolutionary War officers in 1783 in honor of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman farmer who accepted the position of consul and was endowed with dictatorial authority in a time of crisis.  Cincinnatus voluntarily surrendered his powers to the Senate when the crisis was averted.  Even casual students and admirers of Washington cannot fail to note some familiar in this example of selflessness and its implications for American history.  Less than 20 years after the Society of the Cincinnati was formed, Washington would emulate Cincinnatus’s sacrifice and himself voluntarily give up power, returning to Mt. Vernon and his own agricultural pursuits.

This is one history lesson that truly resonated with Washington.  He had grown up reading the moral lessons of the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca, who inspired Washington to always exhibit an even temperament.  Self-sacrifice and a willingness to act in the interest of the greater good were regarded as core Roman virtues; Washington intended that they become American virtues.

Brookhiser, who has also written acclaimed biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris, reminds that Washington and the other founders understood the Roman example to be a cautionary tale.  Franklin is supposed to have told a citizen, who inquired as to the new country’s form of government, that it was to be “a republic, if you can keep it” (p. 122), an acknowledgment that a Republic can easily give way to empire and descend into tyranny.  For Washington, an avid student of the Roman way, there were no better examples for Americans to emulate than the stoicism of Seneca and the example of Cincinnatus.

Applied learning

Washington impressed (and surprised) visitors with his knowledge of court etiquette and drawing room manners, knowledge that came from “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and in Conversation,” written by French Jesuits in 1595 (p. 127).  Interestingly, several of the rules, which Washington is thought to have begun learning from an early age, dealt with the controlling of anger, also a major point of emphasis in Seneca’s writings.  One of the more important underpinnings of the Jesuit handbook advisesthe reader to be modest in accepting honors.  Another says, “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present” (p. 128).

Well-read though he was, when it came to formal education Washington was something of an anomaly among the founding “generation.”  Twenty-four of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been to college.  By the time he was 15, Washington’s schooling was over and his training as a surveyor had begun.  Yet his native intelligence, interest in philosophy and curiosity about history and the lessons it offers led him to what Brookhiser calls an appreciation of “the importance of right ideas” (p. 138).

Washington’s lifelong study of the classics convinced him that the virtues about which he read and in which he so firmly believed could be applied not just in everyday interaction with other people, but to the principles of Republican government.  This belief doubtless contributed to the decision that led to the grand gesture of his career, his decision to surrender power and step down as president.

Brookhiser likens Washington’s fateful voluntary action to a father “who, when his children become adults, lets them go” (p. 185).  Here is the culmination of a lifetime of learning and devotion to duty, a pointed example (not without an element of theater) that he set for his countrymen.  Washington had learned well the virtues of self-sacrifice and he intended to pass them on to the nation and to succeeding generations.

A father’s admonition

In his first farewell address, Washington reminds Americans that they have been blessed with a bounteous land and that the great events of their nation’s creation had placed them in “the most enviable conditions” (p. 188).  But Brookhiser notes that Washington does not end with a ringing, celebratory note but a stern admonition, as from a father who, having sacrificed to provide for his children, expects his work to be carried forward:

“At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own” (p. 189).

Works cited

Brookhiser, Richard.  Rediscovering George Washington: Founding Father. New York: Simon & Schuster (1996)

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