Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Indispensable Birthday

Why His Excellency?

First in War and in Peace
This will complete the "trifecta" centered around His Excellency, George Washington so it is fitting that I write this piece on his actual birthday - February 22nd. Several years ago when I began thinking about writing espionage novels I settled on the American War for Independence as the stage. The how and why I discussed in an earlier blog that I encourage folks to go back to and read. Although military history was my life long avocation, I had not read  very much about the American Revolution. So prior to laying out the plot for the first book in the Yankee Doodle Spies series I began reading as much as I could on Washington and the glorious cause.  I must admit, I soon became impressed with the man and before too long I realized what a great and indispensable leader he was. Washington lived in an age of brilliant thinkers, writers and leaders. One of his strengths was knowing he was not in their league but that he had abilities they needed for the struggle to succeed. He knew his place and he took it. And if you look at the timeline of events in his life, it seems as though he had prepared himself from his earliest days.

 Service and Speculation

The Allegheny Mountains:where Washington explored the land
and was initiated in war

Washington was driven by the two things that drove most of his Virginia planter class:  the acquisition of land and service to his nation.  In the case of the former this involved expanding his family's relatively modest holdings through a brilliant (but also romantic) marriage to Martha Parke Custis.  This made him one of the wealthiest landholders in the Old Dominion. Still, he was constantly looking to expand his holdings and engaged himself in schemes that involved lands from The Great Dismal Swamp in tidewater Virginia to tracts on the Monongahela River and beyond to the Ohio. Both efforts involved him in controversy. But even as he fought for his nation and later as he led it, his thoughts and efforts always returned to land and farming. Washington's early days as a surveyor sort of connect those two dots. Surveying gave him an eye for land and the opportunity to assess land and eventually acquire it. It also led him to the service of Virginia's Governor Dinwiddie that resulted in  missions to the west to assess the land and more importantly, the activities of the French. This led to further service as a militia officer and an event that caused a world war (Seven Years/French and Indian).  That world war led to the economic, military and political factors that brought about the American War for Independence.

As an officer of the Virginia Militia
during the French and Indian War

More than a Military Leader

As the notion of a break with Britain became more widespread, the now prosperous planter Washington committed to the cause. I won't go into the reasons except state that his personal experiences led him to believe Americans would never be seen as equals to their British cousins. And  he realized that British policies were holding America back in economic ways, most especially with regard to trade and westward expansion. So it circles back to land once more. Washington became military commander in chief (and later President) almost by acclamation. His stature (physical and otherwise) and earlier military achievements marked him as a top contender for high command.  His selection over some other highly qualified candidates was also political - bringing Virginia and the south solidly into the now open rebellion. But a brilliant choice it proved to be. During the long struggle Washington affected a persona of nobility and honor that won him international fame.  His stoic resistance to Britain's lightning strikes in New York and Jersey kept the cause from an early collapse. Not a brilliant tactical nor even strategic planner, Washington managed to evolve as a commander, adapting and improvising as he frustrated British efforts to destroy him, his army and the rebellion. He was savvy enough to place his trust in a few confidants who ably helped him along: Greene, Knox, Lafayette.  And Washington's earlier political, business and farming experiences did prove a boon as his greatest challenges were logistics and politics. Washington was constantly communicating with a mercurial and weak Congress as well as state leaders who had their own agendas.  He settled the numerous disputes among the officers as well.  He suppressed  more than one mutiny as well as a "cabal" of senior officers set against him. He survived attempts on his life. He built the Continental Army and it became more vital to the unity of the nation than the Continental Congress. As did he. He became the nucleus and the gravity that kept the nation together. During the eight year struggle, he was the nation.

Less iconic crossing of Delaware


Washington was the first chief executive who wasn't  a
monarch, king, duke or emperor
Yet, at the earliest opportunity he gave it up. In December 1783, when the last British ship departed New York, he said farewell to his officers (at renowned Fraunces tavern) and headed south to render his final report to Congress and turn over his sword. He immediately rode on to Mount Vernon and resumed the life of a planter. But the failings of the Articles of Confederation, and his experiences dealing with a weak central government during the war, led him to join the effort of writing a new constitution. Not the brilliant writer, thinker or philosopher, he did have certain ideals that he lent to the discourse.  But mostly he provided a rallying point and served as the president of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia. His character, his presence, kept the proceedings from devolving and kept the members' eyes on the ultimate goal: a government that would "promote the general welfare and provide for the common defense..."  Italics are mine. Later as President, the experiment that was America could have failed. That it didn't was a testimony to him. Washington steered the infant republic through treacherous domestic and diplomatic waters.  A nation with a Chief Executive over a Republic, not a monarchy, had never been done before. Everything he did as President was a first and so many things  we find routine in government today - he had to figure out as he went along. How much executive action was just enough?  How do you  to deal with Congress, or the cabinet (which he created) or the press, or the people?  How to provide that leadership without the crown and scepter wielded by every other national leader before him? Yet he sustained it for eight precious years allowing for the young Republic to grow roots. And then, once more, he simply walked away. He gleaned no wealth for his service.  Indeed, Mount Vernon was a shambles and his other holdings dissipated. No million dollar book deal.  No paid speaking engagement or other fat cat deals. When war with France threatened under John Adams he agreed with accepting command of the army. But otherwise farm life and greeting and entertaining numerous well-wishers carried him till his death.   Throughout his military and government service Washington had many detractors. Cynics always waited for the other shoe to drop: exploitation of power; creating a kingship; declining to give up power and position.  And many admirers wanted him to do so. Implored him to do so. The fact that he did not sets him apart from any other person in similar circumstances in history. And it is what made him, His Excellency, the indispensable man of his nation,  his age, or any age.

The indispensable man found his farm indispensable


  1. Great photo's and history. Once again, " These are the times that try men's souls."

  2. My first comment is, "Where are the political leaders of our country today that possess the same credibility, integrity and moral compass as did these leaders of our pass?" Our founding fathers had an actual dedication to the land and to the people who populated it. The loss of one would be the loss for all and they knew and understood it.
    They believed in their service to the people and country as a duty and not an ongoing occupation and personal wealth maker. Until our governments political leaders are legally reined in with a goal modifying their time in office as well as a lack of tolerance in their misbehavior, nothing of value will ever result. No more political professional! No more hidden personal deals. We must change or see the end of our nation and its citizens.