There’s naturally allot of talk about president’s at the moment, and so in honour of his birthday I thought I’d write a little about George Washington, and how even the British ended up agreeing he was possibly one of the greatest men, if not the greatest man of the 18th century,
As a child I recall owning up to some infantile misdemeanour that at the time I attached a great importance to but have now forgotten. I remember it was early on a Sunday morning in Florida during the ’90s. Kids like me fret about things that they think they have done wrong, and as it turned out this was one of the times that I needn’t have worried about. I was told that it didn’t matter and that it would be sorted out, I think I must have said sorry for causing such a fuss about nothing because I remember a grown up face smiling down at me as I apologised for telling the truth imparting to me, in a corny hallmark channel way that once there was a little boy who always told the truth and he became president of the United States; I have been a history nut since I was very small and knew they where talking about George Washington. Now I’m British, and as such am removed from the running, yet
I had seen his severe, wig topped, face frowning out from the $1 Bil and quarter, I had a play set which included him, I’d seen the American Adventure in Epcot, and I knew he was the hero of the American Revolution but very little else, yet with childlike instinct I had already decided that I liked him. In 2005 I decided to find out more about the Revolution I told people I wanted to find out “What made the Americans rebel and how the British lost” and to a degree I found out though I am still working out a conclusion.
One thing that is certain is that any book about the American Revolution is going to drive a self respecting British history enthusiast mad and if they are not careful they will invariably end up mentally shouting at the page, rather like you would shout at a TV, “Oh come on!” or “What where you thinking?” not forgetting “How did you let that happen?” this is because on the commonly presented layout of the war reads with a few notable exceptions as a long list of British Victories that achieved nothing and a list of American defeats that did the opposite.
The British Empire has given the British an inbuilt superiority complex that they have yet to grow out of, those with a sense of history are particularly badly affected, so that most us tend to disingenuously put down the Americans as ignorant blowhards whenever we get the chance, yet despite this tendency and despite Washington being on the opposite side and who, interestingly enough, is one of the few Generals in history to conclusively defeat the British in a major war, I could never bring myself to dislike George Washington.
It’s a sort of obtuse satisfaction only a person who is proud of their heritage can feel about a man who put such a dent into national pride. I feel a sort of satisfying “good on you George” when I read about Washington constantly running rings around British Generals who thought he was beaten. This I put down to the fact that I identified more with the Americans as a kid, due to influences which would take up too much time to go into. And by the end I usually can’t help but comment “You can’t say he didn’t earn it”. Most agree that Washington wasn’t a great General to have on a battlefield, (he lost most of the large battles he fought, however actually by my count he has been unfairly judged in this respect, if you count in sieges he actually breaks even) but what is special about him is that he had an innate sense of timing and quickly realised what it would take, perhaps at first not to win a war but how to keep a war like the revolution going. What makes him a genius is that he understood that the emerging nation saw the Continental army as their cause, so as long as he could keep a semblance of an army together the Revolution would endure and even though he was constantly knocked down he always stood back up and bit back just hard enough to keep his men motivated.
There’s no other word you can tag to this man other than hero. He was given an impossible job by men who had thought up a lot of pretty ideas but had no practical idea of how to get them done, he was a relatively low key, soft spoken gentleman with immense personal charisma and courage, who unlike his enemies actually knew what he was fighting for, yet did not at first want to do the job, but once he took it, it is very clear to me that the only way Washington would have given up would have been if he had been shot dead.
Yet I find that I am not the only former enemy to feel this way. In fact despite the oft spoken toast during the Revolution “Death to Washington”, he was revered by many of the opposition party in Britain. After his death even Tories like the Duke of Wellington evinced a strong admiration for him. Once American Minister Edward Everett likened the Duke to Washington. Delighted with this the Duke wrote to thank him for his comparison “I have always felt the highest respect for the character of General Washington… perhaps the purest and noblest character of modern time – possibly of all time”. In 2012 the National Army Museum London conducted a poll to choose Britain’s greatest foe. Out of an impressive list that included names like Napoleon Bonaparte, Erwin Rommel and Mustafa Ataturk, a vote chose the noble Virginian as the greatest military foe Britain had ever faced. In preparation for this post I polled my Twitter followers asking was Washington a Great man or overrated? Approximately 61% of 50 people voted that he was a great man as opposed to 39% who felt he was overrated. During the war Earl Cornwallis called him a cunning Fox, one admittedly he was expecting to bag, so his comment might well be actually calling him verminous but most of the British nobility would nevertheless concede a fox is an excellent chase. Other British officers would grudgingly concede after 8 years of war that he was a worthy opponent. Indeed whether they loathed or revered him, those separated by the wide Atlantic found discussing him irresistible, and I gather he was a source of constant discussion in salons and coffee houses throughout Britain. This is due to his stunning victories on the New Jersey border in late 1776 early 1777, after that as one Hessian officer commented, everything he did was exaggerated and it seemed he could do anything. George III even went so far as to wonder aloud to Benjamin West what Washington would do if he won the war. West replied that he would probably return to his farm, to which George commented, foreshadowing the Duke of Wellington’s comment later on:
“If he does that he will be the greatest man in the world”. Hailed as a modern Cincinnatus, Washington would shrink from office, for fear of being percieved as another Cromwell, yet graciously heed the call to duty and institute America’s fixed term policy by retiring from the presidency in 1797. His old foe, Lord Cornwallis, a man who had actually flourished as a sort of British Hannibal, victorious in battle but defeated in war, had even remembered to offer his congratulations on his successes. In May of 1791 Cornwalis, then Governor General of India passed a small note to Washington via an officer named Captain Truxton. It “Congratulated General Washington on the establishment of a happy government in his country, and congratulated the country on the accession of General Washington to its cheif Magistracy” it further wished “General Washington a long enjoyment of tranquility and happiness”.
When he died in 1799 the British were duelling another Revolutionary power, France, no duty in this period as more vital than that of the beleaguered squadrons of the Royal Navy blockading the French coast. Yet when word that their old enemy had died, the flags of the fleet blockading Brest slipped to half mast. The London Evening Chronicle wrote “The whole range of history does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration”.
Yet he was marked by his times as well. Most obviously he owned slaves, and wether he was a benevolent master or not he wilfully restrained the freedoms of Black men and women while fighting to protect the freedom’s of their White counterparts. Most colonists merely shrugged this uncomfortable fact off by blaming the British, and saying that the institution was too deep rooted to get rid of, or the more bigoted said that slavery was the natural state of “Negro’s”. By 1774 Washington had admittedly seen the hypocrisy of these arguments, and in private he supported early anti slavery measures but the climate of the times was not yet right to be public about it. On his death he had tried to clear his conscience on this matter in his will by freeing all his salves upon the passing of his wife. Something no other slave holding president did. In fairness, given his feelings on the subject, it is a flaw that he might not have possessed, had he been born 200 years later.
Despite this controversial issue that often taints the largely mythical image of a great American hero, he remains rightly, a great man for many to look up to, and can ultimately be said to have changed the course of world history. Perhaps however for all his greatness one cannot but admire Washington for his unfailing modesty, (though he liked public approbation as much as anyone), and reserve. A little girl seeing George Washington for the first time announced to her parents with shock “Why he is only a man!” Washington heard her and plucking off his hat, bowed and said “Yes miss, that’s all I am”.
See you again for another Adventure in Historyland.