Monday, November 3, 2014

The Case of George Washington

To date, when speaking of American presidents, I have illustrated those I consider the worst examples of American leadership, at least from the monarchist perspective which is what we are all about here. It may surprise some to read that I shall not be taking the same course with the subject of today, the first American president; George Washington. Why is that, you ask? Simply because I do not consider Washington to have been a bad president at all. Not flawless, certainly, as none can be but he was, I think, on the whole, one of the better American presidents. Now, before any Yankee Doodle patriots get too excited, let me state up front that there should be no denying the fact that George Washington was a traitor to his king and country and someone who, had he ever been taken by the British, could have been justly executed as such. The man broke his solemn oath to his monarch and that cannot be denied, justified or shrugged off. It is also true that, as the first American president, he was exalted as no American politician ever was until Abraham Lincoln. Because of this, hero worship has created a totally inaccurate view of George Washington in the popular imagination. What perplexes me the most is that it seems he is often given the most praise in the area where it is least deserved.

Most obvious, so obvious in fact that hardly anyone takes it seriously anymore, is the idea that George Washington was so pristinely honest that he was known as the man who “could not tell a lie”. Everyone has probably heard the story about little George Washington and the cherry tree and most everyone probably knows that it did not happen. What is a fact is that George Washington helped start the French & Indian War and signed a confession admitting to the assassination of a French officer by the force under his command. Washington later denied this and claimed that he didn’t know what he was signing but, either way, whether out of ignorance or intent, he had certainly been dishonest -to one side or the other. He also certainly lied when he gave his oath of allegiance as he later broke that oath to take part in the War for Independence. The incident surrounding the death of the French officer, Jumonville, is also revealing about two more misconceptions surrounding George Washington; one that he was a humble man and the second that he was a great military leader.

One could say many things about George Washington but humble he certainly was not. His entire life was one episode after another of his grasping for the next rung of the social ladder. When he started the French & Indian War some of his own countrymen at the time thought that he had gone off to pick a fight with France in the hope of advancing his own military career. We certainly know that one of his first things which led to his break with Great Britain was his failure to secure a commission in the regular army and his offense at the way militia officers were treated as being beneath regular army officers. After the war, he secured an immense fortune for himself by marrying a widow with four children who just happened to be the largest landowner in Virginia following the death of her husband. This was also the man who, when the Continental Army was being formed at the start of the War for Independence, showed up to Congress wearing his old militia uniform from the French & Indian War, blatantly advertising himself for the position of commander of the army. It makes his feigned protests at fearing he was not up to the challenge ring very hollow (even though he was perfectly right on that score).

It is also true that George Washington was a slave owner and though some have tried to temper this part of his life to make him more palatable to modern audiences, it is a futile effort. Known for having very bad teeth, even early in life, Washington was not averse to having teeth extracted from his slaves when he needed some new ones -and I doubt any pain-killers were involved in the process. This was also the man who, as a military commander, blamed his soldiers for lost battles, indeed who cursed them roundly to their faces and asked sarcastically how he could be expected to win a war with such incompetent material to work with. He certainly felt little to no affinity for the common soldier as was demonstrated during the famously harsh winter the army spent at Valley Forge where many soldiers starved and froze to death. Washington certainly did not share their discomfort but was billeted quite comfortably, miles away in a warm mansion, feasting and holding parties and dances (he did love to dance). Was he behaving any differently than any other general of an army? No, not most of them to be sure, but then most are not held up to be examples of great humility like Washington either.

However, if Washington was not humble as an army commander, he nonetheless did, like Clement Attlee, have much to be humble about. To put it simply, Washington was a disastrously bad military commander, bordering on the very depths of incompetence. This may come as a surprise to most people who will have surely heard how Washington was a positively brilliant military commander. It makes one wonder what the standards for brilliance are when that description is applied to a man who consistently lost almost every battle he fought even when the odds were greatly in his favor. This is probably the one point of criticism that I have received the most ‘push back’ on when it comes to George Washington. He won the war after all, so surely he must have done something right? True, he did win the war, or rather was on the winning side and I give him all due credit for that considering that he would have been blamed if the whole thing had failed. However, the man was a military idiot and the facts simply do not support the allegation that he was some sort of genius. It has nothing to do with the cause he was fighting for. I certainly have no sympathy whatsoever for the causes that Napoleon Bonaparte or Field Marshal Rommel fought for and yet these men were, undeniably, military geniuses. Washington was not and to make matters worse, he often repeated the same mistakes over and over again that led to his constant defeats.

For the sake of truth and clarity, let us take a look at the record of his command of the Continental Army throughout the war, with all the major operations year by year. In 1775 Washington assumed command but fought no major battles. The patriots were defeated in their invasion of Canada but he had no part in that fiasco. In 1776 he occupied Boston after the British were bluffed into evacuating it, which some may count as a victory but it seems hard to see it that way. In August, Washington was repeatedly defeated in the battles on Long Island and the following month lost New York City to the British under General Howe. In October, Washington was defeated at White Plains and in November again at Fort Washington which any decent military commander would not have even attempted to defend. After this, he retreated all the way to Pennsylvania and the only battle he won before the year was out was the Battle of Trenton in New Jersey in December. Before anyone becomes too excited, however, this was not a formal battle against the British army but was rather a minor raid in which a vastly superior rebel force surprised a small garrison of drunk German mercenaries before retreating again.

In 1777 Washington started with a victory at Princeton but, again, this was not a formal battle against the main British army. Again, this was a very minor battle against what was effectively the rear guard of the British army and one in which Washington had his enemy vastly outnumbered (roughly 4-to1 odds) and even then, it was a case of barely snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Washington did not meet the main British army in battle again until September when, surprise, surprise, he was soundly defeated by General Howe at the Battle of Brandywine. Later in the month the British occupied Philadelphia, the rebel capitol and the following month Washington was defeated again at the Battle of Germantown. The rest of the year was dominated by action in New York culminating in the British surrender at Saratoga but Washington played no part in that campaign and his army retired to winter quarters at Valley Forge. In 1778 Washington fought only one major battle against the British, the Battle of Monmouth (the largest battle of the war) and this was the closest he ever came to victory in a head-to-head fight against the British army. Of course, it wasn’t a victory, it was, at best, a stalemate but that is as close as Washington would ever come to such a thing.

1779 passed with no major action and in 1780 the British transferred their main operations to the southern colonies. Washington took no part in any major action until the siege of Yorktown in 1781 which ended in the surrender of the British garrison under Lord Cornwallis and, effectively, the end of the war. However, once again, it would be simply untrue to credit this victory to any military brilliance on the part of Washington. The British were outnumbered by at least 2-to-1 and the enemy force opposing them was just as largely French as it was American. Likewise, the victory was only possible because of the victory of the French navy at sea, the French lost more men attacking the British lines than the Americans did and the whole operation was undertaken at the suggestion of the French. Washington had wanted to attack in New York while the Comte de Rochambeau wanted to concentrate on the southern coast and it was a message from the French Admiral, the Comte de Grasse, which finally prompted Washington to give the order to move on Yorktown. Plain and simple, the siege of Yorktown was a French victory more than it was an American victory attributable to Washington.

Washington then, very dramatically, resigned as Commander-in-Chief to retire to civilian life, trying to portray himself like the noble Cincinnatus. Of course, this left him free to be elected President of the United States, and so become commander-in-chief again. It was something very typical throughout the life of Washington; advertising himself for the job of commander of the army, then feigning humility and reluctance to accept the post; stepping down from one position only to accept a more prestigious one later, declining his presidential salary but then (after “difficult” persuasion) accepting it anyway. It was all part of a very carefully calculated public-relations campaign to raise him above all others in the esteem of the public. However, as president, George Washington was the type that, I at least, prefer to others. What I liked most about his administration was that he did very little. In fact, when looking at his time in office, one could have easily mistaken him for a constitutional monarch rather than the sort of presidents most are familiar with.

President Washington, for example, was not a member of any political party and took care to ensure that he was not tied to or beholden to either of the emerging political factions though historians have since categorized him as being more sympathetic to the federalists but, still, not in complete lock-step with them. He tried to be a non-partisan president as hard as that is for people today to imagine. When opposition to the whiskey tax led to rebellion (though it ended without violence), Washington took charge and became the only President to command troops in the field as Commander-in-Chief. When it came to legislation, Washington did not believe that disagreement with a certain bill was sufficient cause to use his veto power against it and felt that a president should only veto a bill passed by both houses if he considered it to be unconstitutional. Obviously, that is a far cry from what his successors in the office have done, for good or ill. And, when it came to foreign affairs, Washington was adamantly opposed to permanent alliances which was a policy Britain had long been known for, being permanently tied to no one so as to allow greater freedom of action when situations developed that would best serve the national interest.

When the French Revolution broke out, despite strong support for the revolutionaries in many sections of the public and in the halls of power, Washington declared that the United States would be neutral. When the representative of the revolutionary government tried to enlist Americans to their cause and set up pro-revolutionary organizations in the country, Washington denounced such activity and asked the French government to recall the man. He was appalled by the Reign of Terror and, though a long-standing member of the Freemasons himself, was critical of the “Enlightenment” sentiments that drove it and was intent on keeping such trends out of America. He normalized relations with Great Britain, reestablished trade with the British Empire (which was beneficial to both sides) and so angered the French revolutionary regime by what were seen as his pro-British policies that they threatened war, though Washington would be out of office before anything of the sort happened and long gone by the time that one of his successors daftly went to war with Britain in 1812. When he left office, his “Farewell Address” included warnings to avoid allowing party politics to take hold in the country and to stay out of any “entangling” alliances with foreign powers. Good advice but, unfortunately, his warning about political parties went unheeded while his warning against entangling alliances and overseas meddling was somewhat more adhered to, at least until the 20th Century.

The last public service Washington gave was as commander of the army, yet again, during the last seven years of his life as war with republican France seemed eminent. On the whole, Washington was a terrible general but a very able president. His treason was mostly due to his own vanity and ambition. His problem with Britain was not really with the monarchy or aristocracy but rather that he was never deemed worthy to be included in that aristocracy. His treason was not due to any objection with the British Empire itself but rather colonial America’s subservient position within it. As a military commander he was downright incompetent but he was certainly courageous and had a natural leadership ability, though this was mostly revealed in his dealings with other generals and officers. His much-praised ability to “keep the army together” was due more to his strict, even cruel, enforcement of severe punishments for desertion or disaffection.

The republicanism that Washington espoused, much like the American government as a whole, was never probably as sincere as it seemed but was more of a last resort; used to give an ideological justification for the treason he and his fellows had committed. This is revealed by the fact that, as president, he acted more like a monarch than a president, doing his best to stay above factions and political parties, urging unity and standing as a unifying force above regional and political divisions. The fact that this mindset did not endure among his successors in the presidency is clear evidence of the shortcomings of the republican model. Washington was a president who managed to act like a monarch but, in such a republic, inevitably the president became a partisan, political figure to the point that Americans today can hardly imagine it being otherwise. As far as American presidents go, he was one of the better ones but it is still worth noting that in his administration, everything he did and everything he argued for, be it his reluctance to use the veto, his effort to stand above politics and to unite his people and keep them united was almost exactly what Britain’s King George III had been trying to do when Washington and those like him betrayed the King for it.

2 comments:

  1. Americans, of course, will typically view Washington's aspirations to command the rebels as "endearing", his defeats as "struggles", and other such tripe. I'm not a big sports fan, but the gymnastics they go through to defend the man's record is undeniably impressive.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are suck ro write this garbage.

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...