Monday, November 3, 2014
The Case of George Washington
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.