Monday, July 22, 2013

George Washington by Paul Johnson

I love American History and I love Paul Johnson the historian, so how could I not read his book, George Washington? Coming in at just over 100 pages, this very slim biography is little delight. 

He follows George Washington from his childhood in Virginia through his death just days shy of 1800. Although from a young age, he kept and cataloged a mountain of papers, indicating that he knew he might be destined for greatness, his overwhelming ambition was to be thought unambitious. Despite the records and accounts, he still remains somewhat mysterious and private. 

He was born to landed Virginia aristocracy. Although dismissed by some as uneducated, he was definitely taught in the classical way at home by schoolmasters, and when his father died, he sought out mentors. He copied out 110 Jesuit maxims and determined to live his life by that wisdom. Land and what he called “interest” were the things that consumed him. He felt land made one a gentleman and “interest” was the bonds and connections that allowed one to move up in the world. It’s possible that his interest in “interest” was one reason why we was so accepting of so many different kinds of people. He never knew when it would help to have a friend in some particular place. So rather than causing him to simply use people, he developed true relationships he could count on.

George Washington began working as a surveyor as a young man. This allowed him to get a very good lay of the land and begin investing in western properties. He experienced Indians in his travels and began to believe strongly that they would not impede America’s move westward. Once Washington inherited his brother Lawrence’s Mount Vernon property, he began to see the importance of defending that land. 

Soon, because of his surveyors knowledge, he was to find himself defending his beloved state in the French and Indian War. Despite two stinging defeats, four bullets shot through his coat, and two horses shot out from under him, his heroic behavior and courage led to a promotion to full colonel. The lessons he learned in this war would prove invaluable to his Revolutionary War efforts. If nothing else, the bitter defeats taught him that the British could indeed lose. 

While he had no children of his own, he was a loving and devoted husband and father to the widow Martha Custis and her children. 

Mount Vernon was not only filled with family and friends, it was filled with slaves. George Washington was no fan of slavery, considering it inefficient at best. Recognizing the inhumanity of it, he refused to sell his slaves to his own detriment. He became, over the course of his lifetime, slave rich and cash poor. Yet he tried to make an horrible situation the best he could. He clothed and educated his slaves, refused to hunt fugitive slaves with dogs and rarely used the whip. “At the time of his death, of three hundred slaves on his property, only about a hundred actually worked.” He kept slaves until their death and refused to break up families. He freed his slaves upon the death of Martha, yet even this step was difficult in a culture that found its very life entwined with the “peculiar institution.”

Washington viewed with trepidation the increasing presence of the British into American life. While not necessarily a radical, he could see that eventually America would have to resist the British and he sincerely hoped the mother country would eventually see reason. “Washington was baffled and in the end angered and disgusted by the sheer ignorance and incompetence of the home government from 1763 onward.” He represented Virginia at the Second Continental Congress and accepted with both confidence and self-doubt the role of commander in chief of the Revolutionary forces in July of 1775. He spent the next 6 1/2 years battling both the British and Congress. The weak federal government was unable to keep its promises or pay its bills. Lessons not lost on the future first president.

“Washington will never go down as one of the great field commanders... Of the battle he fought, he lost three out of ten. On the other hand, he was a strategist of genius who understood very well what kind of a war he was fighting and how to win it.” And with the will to fight for what he knew to be right, win it he did. When he resigned his commission at the end of the war, King George remarked that if Washington returned to his farm, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” “Farmer George” went home. 

Back at Mount Vernon, he poured himself into the running of his neglected plantation. He set about on a project of building canal to connect the distant west to the populated towns and plantations. Ever thinking he made sure Mount Vernon would benefit from the proposed corridors. Yet in these agricultural and business dealings, he began to see the need for a stronger national government. Leaving home once again, he presided over the Constitutional Convention and saw a new nation truly birthed from the ashes of the Revolution.

After the new Constitution was ratified, Washington was informed that he had been selected as the first president. Despite having to borrow the money to travel back to New York, he initially declined a salary. Yet congress would not have it and despite its own lack of resources insisted all public servants receive a regular salary. This lack of funds proved to be one of the first obstacles President Washington had to deal with. Hamilton, of low birth, but a proven financier, insisted that all debts be paid and that these new United States start on firm footing, opening itself up for business and future credit. He fought as well for a National Bank, believing it and integral part of a growing economy. Washington generally sided with Hamilton, but had to incorporate the differing opinion of Jefferson who saw Hamilton as an aristocratic monarchist intent in returning America to a monarchy with King George at the head. Washington deftly navigated the crisis, siding with Hamilton yet presiding over the compromise which would locate the national headquarters in the south. 

Washington set the precedents for future presidents. He was active. He toured the country and talked to the people. He was no monarchist as Jefferson feared and even Jefferson declared, Washington, “would rather be on his farm than made Emperor of the World!” George Washington suited up in his old uniform when a “Whiskey Rebellion” began over taxes and pushed for the promised Bill of Rights. He knew we needed a strong separation between church and state in order to avoid the feeble Church of England and the bigoted New England version of it. Yet he considered himself a Christian and saw religion as very important in the life of America. He would have been horrified to see the mockery we have made today of his attempts to save the church from the government. While eager to return home after his first term, events such as the French Revolution and America’s continuing hot and cold relations with Britain convinced him that he must stand for a second term. This first “second term” even set the precedent we continue to see in second terms: b-list appointees, scandal, intransigence, and heartache. 

Washington spent his final three years at home, working on much neglected project of love, Mount Vernon. Yet there was no rest for the righteous as visitors remained at his home almost constantly and wore him out. Unlike the last book I read on George Washington, Johnson sees him as mentally sharp and observant to the end. He died after getting sick following a snowy ride in December 1799. He was bled by his doctors, as was the custom and that probably contributed to his death. So passed away one of the greatest Americans to ever live, a model for us as individuals and for our current leaders.

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