With Independence Day coming up, I thought it would be topical to look at the men who created this great nation. I specifically want to talk about the founder whose legacy is often lost in American mythos, George Washington. Some might think it’s strange to refer to Washington as a “forgotten founder”, but I think the title is apt. Washington wasn’t like his other peers. Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, Adams, and others left a paper trail of their thoughts on the role of government, economics, natural law, and all those topics enlightenment thinkers loved to talk about. You might have to do some sifting to see what they actually thought, but at least we have those documents. With Washington that isn’t the case. The private correspondence between George Washington and his wife, Martha Washington, was thrown in the fire after his death, making research on his private thoughts difficult. He was great at writing meticulous instructions, whether they be military orders (1) or instructions on how to run his land empire (2), but he wasn’t steeped in the enlightenment tradition (3) like the other Founding Fathers. There simply isn’t a document we can point to (e.g. the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc.) that gives us a glimpse of his thoughts on freedom, liberty, and all those fuzzy terms we love to talk about on Independence Day.
So getting a genuine look at Washington, the historical man, is difficult, something you’ll only find in those turgid biographies that no one reads. You certainly won’t find it in a history class. Instead we get stories about cherry trees and wooden teeth, an American mythos that is only rivaled by Benjamin Franklin. It’s is a damn shame if you ask me. Not that I have a problem with some harmless mythos, but Washington is a incredibly interesting guy and historians have written thousands of pages to show us his story. Unfortunately, I’m not a historian and I can’t write a 500 page biography to show why Washington, in my opinion, is the most prescient Founding Father. But I can distill my admiration for the man into two major points.
- Many Americans, especially the “patriotic” ones, don’t like to talk about this, but Washington had an ego. Like any soldier or politician, he wanted to move up in the ranks. He even tried to “edit” the record (4), but it’s obvious from his letters that the man had ambition. From his early days as commander of the Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War, Washington’s letters oozed with eagerness and contempt for his British superiors. When John Campbell replaced Edward Braddock after the latter’s death in the Battle of Monongahela, Washington begged Campbell to give his regiment some piece of the action (5). He thought that his soldiers were the best in North America at using the unconventional military tactics needed to beat the French and their Indian allies. 18th century European style warfare didn’t work when the dense forests of Pennsylvania split your columns of troops into smaller, more vulnerable targets. But his words went unheeded and Campbell not only ignored his request, but he temporarily disbanded the Virginia Regiment. Washington had trouble navigating the rules of English aristocrats, and his letters show that he had little respect for his military superiors (6). He even had contempt for the reasonable John Forbes, who actually used to Washington’s advice during his anticlimactic campaign to capture Fort Duquesne, something Braddock failed to do 4 years before. His ambition wasn’t regulated to his younger days, but lasted throughout his military and political career. However, this desire for glory was constrained by an incredible amount of self-control:
The more important and less ambiguous fact is that Washington possessed a deep-seated capacity to feel powerful emotions. Some models of self-control are able to achieve their serenity easily, because the soul-fires never burned brightly to begin with. Washington became the most notorious model for self-control in all of American history, the original marble man, but he achieved this posture- and sometimes it was a posture – the same hard-earned way he learned soldiering, by direct experience with difficulty….Appearances aside, he was an intensely passionate man, whose powers of self-control eventually became massive because of the interior urges they were required to master. (Ellis 2004: 37)
Any American who knows even a little bit of history knows that the American Revolution did not start out good for the Yankees. A couple of more battles like Battle of Long Island and Battle of Brandywine, and the American cause would have probably of dissipated. While licking his wounds at Morristown (7), Washington, unlike most commanders, learned from these disasters and held back his inner Napoleon. His realized that his troops and equipment weren’t up to standard needed to take on the British army. Deep down he really wanted to fight the British head on, but he settled for a Fabian strategy (a war of attrition) and avoided putting his army at major risk. It wasn’t pretty, and he still lost battles, but it was the correct strategic decision.
Or consider the Newburgh Conspiracy. The impotent Confederate Congress could not meet the its obligations made to the soldiers of the Revolutionary Army. They needed to raise money, which required taxes and tariffs, and the individual states were not about to pay up. So some nationalists, probably led by Robert Morris, got together and tried to use the threat of a military coup as a political weapon to raise revenue. When Washington got wind of this, he wasn’t having it. He wasn’t going to follow the path of a Napoleon or Cromwell. He fought for the principles of the American Revolution and he wasn’t about to abandon them. He gave his “Newburgh Address” on March 15th, 1783 and that was the end of it (8). It’s important to note that this wasn’t just some honorable gesture to republican principles, it was also a calculated political move. He knew that his place in history would be enhanced by embracing the principles of the revolution, by surrendering his power, not expanding it. He had the self-control and judgement to realize this. A weaker man might not have taken the same course of action and American as we know it might not exist.
- Washington had an incredible sense of judgement. His thoughts on almost every major political or military problem that confronted him, sparse as they were, were almost prophetic. He predicted war with Great Britain after George III ordered British troops to occupy Boston in 1774 (Intolerable Acts). He predicted that Western expansion would be an integral part of America’s future. He predicted the death of the Articles of Confederation and its eventual replacement by a more powerful federal government. He predicted the tragic trajectory of French Revolution into blood and tyranny. Without the benefit of hindsight, this is an impressive list of predictions.Ironically enough, it was Washington’s lack of education that helped him make such clear judgements. His mind wasn’t influenced by those enlightenment preconceptions that sometimes plagued his peers. As much as I love the writings of Jefferson, Madison, and our other founders, they sometimes read like paranoid lunatics who fret about every supposed “attack” on liberty. As Bernard Bailyn showed in his famous book, The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, this wasn’t by accident (9). Our founders were steeped in a tradition that thought in conspiracy-theorist like terms. Gordon Wood summarizes the sentiment:
Conspiratorial interpretations – attributing events to the concerted design of willful individuals – became a major means by which educated men in the early modern period ordered and gave meaning to their political world. Far from being symptomatic of irrationality, this conspiratorial mode of explanation represented an enlightened stage in Western Man’s long struggle to comprehend his social reality. It flowed from the scientific promise of the Enlightenment and represented an effort, perhaps in retrospect a last desperate effort, to hold men personally and morally responsible for their actions. (Wood 2011: 92)
Washington was, most of the time, an exception to this rule. He didn’t let these paranoid thoughts cloud his judgement. He understood, based on his experience during the American Revolution and failed Articles of Confederation, that an expansion of power was sometimes needed to create a functioning government.
He also held no qualms about people. Washington didn’t need to read Hobbes to understand that people were motivated by self-interest. He learned through experience, which can be traced back to his days leading the Virginia Regiment. He frequently saw the principle of voluntarism fall apart, especially when it came to military matters (10). It’s why he had contempt for militias during the American Revolution (11). His convictions about people also extended to nations, which is why he never committed American power to Europe during the chaotic French Revolution. A fledgling America would gain little, if anything, from helping the French shift the European balance of power in their favor. Washington instead focused America’s energies at home, consolidating control of the land east of the Mississippi, which eventually culminated Treaty of London (or Jay Treaty) of 1794. Washington’s farewell address provided a seminal statement for the realist tradition; “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard.” Ultimately, it was Washington’s lack of intellectual preconceptions, and his willingness to learn from experience, that allowed him to make such prescient judgements.
At this point, you’re probably sick of my hagiography, but I genuinely think that out of all of our Founders, Washington is the least understood. Americans known Washington the myth, not Washington the man. As a result, he is, in an important sense, the least appreciated founder. The revolutionary writings of Jefferson are timeless. The Federalist Papers, written by Madison and Hamilton, are still surprisingly useful. The self-criticism of John Adams is something we should all aspire to. The wisdom of Benjamin Franklin, while at times hokey (12), is instructive. But Washington, with his emphasis on self-control, clarity, and realism, is in my opinion, the man we can learn the most from and his guiding principles are needed in the calamitous political fervor of today.
2. Washington owned an obscene amount of land. He owned 8000 acres at Mount Vernon and had enormous land holdings in the Ohio Valley, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Kentucky. It all amounted to over 50,000 acres by the time of his death.
3. Washington at best received a grade-school eduction. He was never exposed to the “classics” (Greek and Roman thinkers) and he didn’t attend college.
4. See Ellis 2004, pages 153-154
Despite hie earlier refusal to cooperate with any biographical venture that did not confine itself to the wartime years, Washington felt sufficiently comfortable with Humphreys to cooperate in sketching a memoir of his youthful exploits during that earlier war in the Ohio Country. In what might be called revisionist history, he edited out his early ambition to become a British officer and inserted slight distortions or evasion designed to conceal the controversies surrounding his surrender at Fort Necessity and his partisan behavior during the Forbes campaign, thereby sanding down the rough edges of his pre-hero phase of development.
We the Officers of the Virginia Regiment beg Leave to congratulate Your Lordship on your safe Arrival in America: And to express the deep Sense We have of His Majesty’s great Wisdom and paternal Care for his Colonies in sending your Lordship to their Protection at this critical Juncture. We likewise beg Leave to declare our singular Satisfaction and sanguine Hopes on your Lordship’s immediate Appointment over our Colony, as it in a more especial Manner entitles Us to your Lordship’s Patronage.
Your favours of the 13th Jany and 24th Ulto with part of a Letter from Lord Loudoun was this day deliverd me;1 in the latter you condescend to ask my opinion of Major Smith: Is not his Plan a sufficient testimony of his Abilities? Can there be a better Index to the Man than his scheme for reducing the Enemy on Ohio? and his expeditious March of 1000 Men to Detroit? surely he intended to provide them first with Wings, to facilitate their Passage over so Mountainous & extensive a Country; else whence comes this Flight?
As I am unacquainted with the Navigation of those Rivers he purposes to traverse, so consequently, I cannot be a Competent judge of the Plausability of his Scheme; but the distance is so great, and that thrô an Enemy’s Country, (for we have too much Reason to believe the Indians on Ohio are Enemies to Us) that I must look upon it as a Romantick whim that may subsist in Theory, but must fail in practice; for if we are strong enough to attempt the Reduction of the Ohio what necessity is there for Our making such a Compass about, and leaving Fort Duquesne behind Us which is the Scource from whence proceeds all our Ills—and if we are too weak to attempt this place, what have we to expect by leaving it in Our Rear but absolute Destruction; while the French have the Indians at Command.
7. After the Battle of Trenton and Battle of Princeton, Washington entered his winter quarters at Morristown, New Jersey.
But as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country. As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you, on public duty. As I have been the constant companion & witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel, & acknowledge your merits. As I have ever considered my own military reputation as inseperably connected with that of the army. As my Heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises and my indignation has arisen, when the mouth of detraction has been opened against it it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to its interests….. And let me conjure you, in the name of our common country as you value your own sacred honor as you respect the rights of humanity; as you regard the military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood gates of civil discord, & deluge our rising empire in blood.
9. See Bailyn 1967, page 95
They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles upon which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America. The danger to America, it was believed, was in fact only the small immediately visible art of the greater whole whose ultimate manifestation would be the destruction of the English constitution, with all the rights and privileges embedded in it.
10. See Ellis 2004, page 28
He described one scene in which a thirty-man militia unit refused to assist in the construction of a fort unless paid forty pounds of tobacco for each day of labor, this despite the fact that the fort was designed to protect their own families from annihilation. On another occasion, when reports of a large Canadian and Indian patrol arrived at his headquarters at Winchester, most of the militia assigned to his command declared their enlistments up and simply walked out. Washington resented that his Virginia Regiment was frequently mistaken for a mere militia unit. He did not believe you could trust in the principle of voluntarism, or the spontaneous expression of public virtue, to meet a wartime crisis.
I do not know how to account for the unfortunate steps which have been taken but from that fatal idea of conciliation which prevailed so long—fatal, I call it, because from my soul I wish it may prove so, though my fears lead me to think there is too much danger of it. This time last year I pointed out the evil consequences of short enlistments, the expenses of militia, and the little dependence that was placed in them. I assured [Congress] that the longer they delayed raising a standing army, the more difficult and chargeable would they find it to get one, and that, at the same time that the militia would answer no valuable purpose, the frequent calling them in would be attended with an expense, that they could have no conception of. Whether, as I have said before, the unfortunate hope of reconciliation was the cause, or the fear of a standing army prevailed, I will not undertake to say; but the policy was to engage men for twelve months only. The consequence of which, you have had great bodies of militia in pay that never were in camp; you have had immense quantities of provisions drawn by men that never rendered you one hour’s service (at least usefully), and this in the most profuse and wasteful way. Your stores have been expended, and every kind of military [discipline?] destroyed by them; your numbers fluctuating, uncertain, and forever far short of report—at no one time, I believe, equal to twenty thousand men fit for duty. At present our numbers fit for duty (by this day’s report) amount to 14,759, besides 3,427 on command, and the enemy within stone’s throw of us.3 It is true a body of militia are again ordered out, but they come without any conveniences and soon return. I discharged a regiment the other day that had in it fourteen rank and file fit for duty only, and several that had less than fifty.4 In short, such is my situation that if I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy on this side of the grave, I should put him in my stead with my feelings; and yet I do not know what plan of conduct to pursue.
12. Read Mark Twain’s hilarious essay “The Late Benjamin Franklin“. It’s more about the myth of Franklin than the real Franklin, but it’s still funny.
1. Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1967. Print.
2. Ellis, Joseph J. His Excellency: George Washington. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
3. Wood, Gordon S. The Idea of America: Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.