Wednesday, February 22, 2006

George Washington

George Washington (born on this day in 1732 in Pope's Creek, Westmoreland County, Virginia) mostly lives for us as a stone face on Mount Rushmore, and his legend as "father of the country" serves to enhance that monolithic reputation; but his humanity can be seen in the artifice he used to command and lead, as well as in his early failures.

George's father Gus, a planter of 10,000 acres on the backwaters of the Potomac, died when George was 11, and afterwards George went to live on his brother Lawrence's posh estate at Mount Vernon. His admiration of Lawrence and his enjoyment of Mount Vernon inspired him to be a land magnate, and while still in his teens, he learned surveying and began to acquire land through first-crack risking and subtle manipulations. He also recognized, however, that British officers would sometimes be rewarded in land, so he set his sights on a British Army commission.

His first leadership assignment in the colonial British Army was an unmitigated disaster which probably precipitated the French and Indian War. At Jumonville Glen, Pennsylvania in 1754, Washington bushwhacked 40 French soldiers, and during the scuffle, one of his Indian allies mortally scalped a French diplomat; shortly thereafter, having supervised the construction of Fort Necessity in a tactically vulnerable spot, Washington and his small company were set upon and forced to surrender to the French, who tricked him into signing a confession of personal responsibility for the atrocity committed by the Indian ally. Feeling pressure from London, Washington resigned in disgust, but rejoined as the Jumonville incidents escalated into war, serving as aide-de-camp to Edward Braddock, and bravely leading the retreat following Braddock's fall at Monongahela in 1755 -- thus salvaging his reputation, although failing to receive a British Army commission from the King.

It has been observed that the expense of the French and Indian War required the British to raise colonial taxes, which inspired the American Revolution, and caused Louis XVI to do the same in France, precipitating the French Revolution -- which is quite a lot to hang upon Washington's spontaneous Jumonville ambush.

He resigned his colonial commission in 1758, entered the Virginia House of Burgesses and married a wealthy widow, Martha Dandridge Custis. They became one of the supreme "power couples" of Virginia as Washington settled into the role of gentleman planter and public servant. His sense of the unfair economic treatment of the colonies by the British grew as his awareness of his own achievements by his late-30s (an opulent estate, a wealthy wife, an honored name) became tiresome to him -- perhaps leading him to become one of the first wealthy Virginians to turn militantly against British rule.

He organized a Virginia militia with the express purpose of readying for a fight with the British, and by the time the minutemen met the Redcoats at Lexington and Concord in 1775, Washington was already a delegate to the Continental Congress, urging for a declaration of American independence and subtly suggesting himself as an American commander-in-chief by appearing everywhere in a military uniform of his own design.

In June 1775, he was unanimously chosen as the commander-in-chief, in part for the better part of his military reputation and in part because John Adams and other northerners wanted to show that independence was not just a New England screed. To expel the professional British Army from the continent, Washington had merely a few gangs of rag-tag, untrained short-timers under his command; his most significant resource was not a wealth of experience, however, but an ability to project the presence of leadership and inspire discipline and hope through the propagation of his unflappable persona through the ranks.

He managed to drive the British out of Boston in March 1776, but for much of the rest of 1776 Washington struggled from one destructive loss to another from Long Island through the New Jersey plains. As Christmas approached, he devised a plan to turn away from conventional fighting, in which he was inexperienced and outnumbered, adopting Indian guerilla tactics by crossing the Delaware in a sleet storm and attacking the rum-soaked enemy at the British barracks in Trenton on Christmas night. He followed that with another victorious ambush at Princeton in January 1777.

The victories themselves were small ones, but they restored Washington's confidence, propped up sagging colonial morale and enabled Washington to crank up the press machine to salvage his reputation among colonial leaders -- especially among rival generals, who thought Washington was a hobbyist in military drag. From the lessons of 1776, Washington's strategy emerged: stay in the conflict by stealth and cunning just long enough to exhaust the British purse and patience. His leadership held the starving, unclothed Continental Army together through the rough winter at Valley Forge in 1777, and with the momentum gained by the French recognition of American independence in May 1778 and the French assistance which followed, Washington's patient plan culminated in the surrender of British forces at Yorktown in October 1781.

Just before the surrender, when the Continental Army was feeling its greatest power, Washington's officers whispered that military rule would be a better alternative for a new nation than a Congress of squabbling civilians; but Washington, perhaps uniquely in the history of civilization up to that time, deferred to the civilian institutions which had supported him and did not assert dictatorial authority as compensation for his conquest -- and more importantly, held his officers in check when they were bristling for him to take over. He resigned his command after the peace treaty was inked in 1783, but was recalled from Virginia in 1787 to serve as president of the Constitutional Convention; upon its adoption, he was the choice by acclamation to serve as the first president of the United States.

In his new role, he marshaled many of the same resources which he used in winning independence (his leadership presence, his ability to calm the wayward passions of his charges and maintain the stability of his command) to create of presidency of precedents that would be long-held: limitation to two 4-year terms (broken only once), relying heavily upon a cabinet of his own choosing for advice and strategy (a cabinet which included Jefferson and Hamilton, no less), seeking the best talent outside of the ranks rather than relying on seniority to dictate his staffing decisions, and establishing the supreme authority of the federal government in Constitutionally-appointed affairs -- an authority which was challenged by the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which inspired President Washington to mount his horse and ride into a potential battle which never occurred against rebels in the Pennsylvania frontier, the only time an American president has actually led troops into action.

In his Farewell Address (1796), he warned against partisanship, but while able people would follow in his footsteps, none of them possessed the strength of persona to avoid inevitable factionalism; with Washington's departure, America's two-party system was born. In retirement, he accepted a command in preparation for possibilities hostilities against France following the XYZ Affair, but his services were never required. He was mourned as the first and greatest hero of the new nation when he died almost 3 years after the end of his presidency, on December 14, 1799.

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