Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Washington, the Man

I am reading James Thomas Flexner's "Washington: The Indispensable Man." It is a condensation to one volume of Flexner's exhaustive 4 volume biography. Flexner originally set out to write a single volume of Washington's life, but found that there was so much going on, that he simply could not do it. So, Flexner wrote the 4 volume set. After completion, he realized that he could now write the single volume that he initially set out to do. The Indispensable Man is the result.

For one who talks so much about the Founding Fathers, I know surprisingly little about Washington. Washington was always kind of a stuffy wooden character with wooden teeth. He was a military genius, who was able to turn anything he touched in to a success. Nothing could be further from the truth. Washington was as incompetent as anybody ever was in nearly every endeavor he attempted, including martial arts, farming, land ownership, and governing. In nearly everything he did, he was forced in to positions of leadership that he neither wanted, or was qualified for. Washington's genius was in his ability to learn and adapt to his situation.

In getting to know Washington, we find... A party animal. Washington loved to drink, gamble, and go to "unsavory" sporting events such as bear bating, cock fighting, and prize fighting. During the Revolution, he was well known for his wild parties, and various drunken escapades.

We find a man who, while not really knowing how to lead an army, is a natural and amazing leader of men. Washington would lead his army from the front, never the rear. During the Revolution, he would have horse after horse shot out from underneath him. His clothing would be riddled with holes from the musket balls fired at him. His men followed, because they knew he would be right there with him.
His inexperience also gave to innovative insights that would have never been allowed in the warfare of the day. Washington was used to fighting like the "Indians." Why march up in ranks to face the most powerful fighting force on the face of the planet? Better to ambush them and fight from cover where your smaller irregular force has the advantage.

Just before the end of the Revolution, we find that, as in all revolutions before and since, the cause nearly fell in to tyranny. At the end of the Revolution, the states saw no need to keep paying for an army, or a central government, that they no longer felt they needed. The army, tired of not being given what they were promised composed to usurp the states, and take control of the new nation. By army we mean the general staff, and Alexander Hamilton.
Washington was approached by Hamilton. Hamilton offered Washington what the general staff wanted. They wanted to create a new monarchy. They wanted Washington to be king. Washington recoiled at the thought. He scolded Hamilton and the general staff. Washington fought for liberty of the people, why would he step in as the new tyrant?
Unexpectedly, at a "secret" meeting, Washington gave what is now known as his farewell address. After giving part of his speech, he found that most in the room were not agreeing with him. He pulled out his notes, then, not being able to read them, he pulled out his glasses. Washington, for all of his admirable qualities, was a vain man. Only his very closest friends knew that he wore glasses. Washington said to the startled crowd:
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."
The men then realized, that no one person has given more in service to the country. No one person had put more on the line than Washington. They realized that there would be no kings in the new country.

After victory, we see Washington go off to live at Mount Vernon content with being a farmer. It was at this time that the best of his life. He nearly failed, as the only thing that they could sell as a cash crop was tobacco, and the only people they could sell to was the British. Washington, ever the learner and adapter found that the farmers in the interior of the country made a living by growing crops that others in the interior needed. They bartered for other products that their families wanted. Washington took that idea back to Mount Vernon, and turned his farm in to a self sufficient operation. He constructed mills, grew cereal crops, and sold his flour, and other crops around his community. Soon a profit was turned, and he became the first Virgina plantation owner to be out of British debt.
During this time, the Washingtons loved to entertain. People from all around the country came to Mount Vernon to have a few moments with the General. He accommodated them all. He would supper with everybody, and drink with the men. If you were particularly interesting you would be invited to play cards with the General. Be sure you bring your cash, because Washington doesn't play for fun.
About this time, Washington acquired some land that he wished to build a canal on. Dealing with the many states, and all of the different rules, drove him to the edge, whereupon he arranged a meeting of representatives from all of the states to see how they could better regulate interstate commerce. From this simple meeting came The Constitution.

Washington knew, though he did not want it, that the delegation would elect him President of the convention. He also realized as the delegates were debating the Executive branch, they had Washington in mind as the Executive. It was Washington himself, who angled for an executive with very limited powers.

Washington was, in a very real sense, the Platonic ideal for the first President of the United States. He did not want the job. When he was in office, he wanted to do nothing more that the get OUT of office. He didn't know it, but many of the things that he did have now become common and unbreakable "rules."
Washington hated strong willed debate. Initially, the President was to attend debate in the Senate and defend his policies. After the first time, Washington was heard while leaving "I'll be damned if I ever do that again."
It was thought that the Vice President would be the President's Prime Minister. John Adams and Washington disliked each other. Therefore the role of Vice President was relegated to nearly a transparent "do nothing" position. Of course this has changed a bit over the years, but essentially the Vice President has no official functions but to break ties in the Senate.

Washington turns out to be a real live human. He hated public life, but loved to entertain. He liked to drink. He liked to be outdoors. He felt a sense of obligation to his country, and therefore would do nearly any task the country put to him. But he never used is fame and influence to dominate over his fellow countrymen. He was offered ultimate power, but turned it down to be a farmer. He was offered ultimate power again, with congress as window dressing, he turned it down again to be an elected representative of the people.

He had his faults, as all men do. He owned slaves. Yet, unlike other slave owners, he never broke up families. Even when the amount of slaves he owned threatened to bankrupt him. One very interesting thing about Washington was that after all the talk about liberty and the equality of men, Washington, unlike Jefferson or even Madison, freed his slaves. He recognized the "great evil." He wondered if Providence would ever forgive him for his participation.
Washington was not a perfect man. He was just that. A man.

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