Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The First.

General Washington,
Crossing the Delaware

February 18 is President's Day, more particularly Washington's birthday. His example and leadership still guides Americans, some 250 years later. Here are a few stories that stand out to me.

Not long into the Revolutionary War, during the winter at Valley Forge, the colonial armies were cold, hungry, poorly out-fitted, and dejected. General Washington refused the customary offer to stay in a home so that he could sleep out-of-doors with his men in the snow and cold. He could not ask of his men what he could not do himself.

He guided the colonial armies in that war and led his men into battle under the most difficult of circumstances, with little support and inadequate supplies. His military strategy of letting the battle come to him kept his small army alive and able to fight another day. His decisions would either bring them victory or defeat and victory was far from certain. But the colonialists were victorious and when the war was over he resigned as commander-and-chief and returned control of the military to Congress.

A few years later, he reluctantly attended the Constitutional Convention, knowing that without his presence at the head of the table, party disagreements could splinter the then confederated states into several small nation-states. He said little during the formal meetings, he knew too much deference would be given his words.

After the ratification of the Convention's Constitution a new nation needed a first President. He won by 69 unanimous votes of the electoral college and served eight years. He declined a third term. He knew everything that he did would be the standard for all Presidents following.

Notwithstanding these virtues, in this era of deconstructing the True and Good, someone will find some fault for which he should be chastised and disrespected, and since courage and self-sacrifice are illusions, Washington's true motives must have been money or fame or some other less than noble purpose. Maybe it was because of this that I was most happy to watch MSNBC's Chris Matthews offer tribute to President Washington at the end of today's news-show. I can't quote Matthews, but I will quote historian Paul Johnson on the same story with which Matthews closed his show.

From Johnson's book on Washington:
In London, George III questioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. "Oh," said West, "they say he will return to his farm." "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

No comments: