George Washington. The name is more godlike than human. It’s the name of a man that’s made of stone and marble more than flesh and blood. He’s closest to a god that a mortal man can get. If ever there were a man who got true glory and more, it would be George Washington.
But George Washington was a real man. Moreover, he didn’t start out in the best of circumstances. He also lacked some crucial talents. He wasn’t a military genius in the sense of Napoleon or Caesar. He wasn’t a great rhetorician like Patrick Henry. He wasn’t as purely smart as his contemporaries like Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson. What George Washington did have, however, was a clarity of mind and purpose, a sublime character which he cultivated into an irreproachable personality cult, and a mastery of symbolism that spoke far more powerfully than words ever could.
His character and will in particular was what glued it all together, and we see that in Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation. It’s an old book that recently surfaced (I told you I’ve been going through some of my old things lately). Patriarch tells the story of George Washington’s presidency and his brief semi-retirement in 1797-99. Here we see how not only the presidency, but the machinery of republican government in America itself, coalesced around his character in the new nation’s top office. Were it not George Washington holding that position first, there is some doubt that the launch of the American republic would have been successful. There were few important institutions binding the states together in those days. George Washington was one such institution.
But what went into making that character? Patriarch goes into much of these personal as well as political details. It’s underappreciated nowadays, but America’s founding generation was very Roman-like, in the sense that that the history of Rome formed the foundation of their historical awareness (though certainly contemporary and recent events were on their minds as well). The classics were then very much the center of Western education. This is obvious when reading the publications of the day, most obviously the Federalist Papers, which were written under the anonymous pseudonym “Publius.”
George Washington was no exception to this rule, and what strikes you most is that, in many ways, he was a latter day Stoic. The similarities between him and Cicero won’t go unnoticed by someone who’s read both Patriarch and On Duties. Cicero was better educated than George Washington, but the latter had the better political instincts. Both men had a love of country retirement on their farms, away from the storm of public life. Yet, both felt a duty to leave such domestic tranquility behind and go into the center of the hurricane. George Washington was more successful.
Duty vs. Glory
The chief distinction that Cicero makes in On Duties, of course, is that there can be no expediency that conflicts with what is morally right. Only an illusion of such exists. It may seem expedient to throw what’s morally right to the winds in favor of some outcome like power or riches, but nature seems to decree that these acts always come back to haunt you in the end. The story of so many tyrants and demagogues is testament to this.
George Washington always had ambitions to rise to the top of society and in his youth he very much personified the old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” trope, always creating a practical system:
Young Washington’s journals reveal a lively, observant mind, open to new experiences and foreign cultures. He learned early to read the motives of the French scouts sent out to harass an English scouting party or a silent – too silent – Indian guide leading him toward possible ambush. Although the forest was Washington’s first classroom, it was hardly his only one. Consistent with Lord Fairfax’s prediction, Washington never stopped learning or putting his newfound knowledge to practical use. At an astonishingly early age he could ford a river, clothe a regiment, chart a mountain road, and charm a lawmaker. He was the surveyor of Culpepper County at seventeen and adjutant inspector of the Virginia militia with a major’s commission before his twentieth birthday.
And yet, while he was constantly learning and acquiring new skills, making his name and winning glory for himself, his country was always first on his mind and he would do nothing to harm it. Creating the country in essence became his great work and no personal considerations came before the good of his nation.
Duty was something to be carried out whether it would win adulation or be jeered by some. It was only out of a sense of duty that George Washington assumed the presidency, which he was loathe to do, in the first place. That same sense of duty compelled him to accept a second term even though he longed for retirement. Duty came at a cost to him, as his retirement would be expedient to him but could be detrimental to the new nation. And sometimes duty required him to be a strict father to his nation, as shortly into his second term, a crisis arose which seems minor today, but could have seriously threatened the legitimacy of the new republic in 1794. That was the almost comically named “Whiskey Rebellion,” which came as a reaction to Alexander Hamilton’s unpopular taxes on distilled spirits.
What the nation needed at that time was not a Jeffersonian idealist, but an almost Roman-like realism, which George Washington personified:
As president, he harbored none of the modern reformer’s illusions about human perfectibility. Nor did he ever confuse republicanism with pure democracy. Even indirect democracy assumed a virtuous citizenry as the bulwark of popular liberties. Washington had said as much in his first inaugural address, insisting that “there is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists…an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage.” His was a highly practical idealism, more Roman than Greek in its antecedents, with little of Rousseau’s unquestioning celebration of natural man and much of Tidewater Virginia’s noblesse oblige.
In carrying out his duties in putting down the rebellion, George Washington solidified his place as patriarch of the nation, the father looking out for the child’s best long term interests. However much the Jeffersonian credo of limited government tugs our heartstrings today, at the time, establishing a government strong enough to bind the states into a permanent union, the enforcement of its laws being essential as such, was in the long term interests of a strong and independent America. George Washington did so throughout his presidency out of a sense of duty, and left the stage as soon as that duty was completed, establishing one more crucial precedent on his way out – an orderly and peaceful transfer of power, particularly when a revered figure left the stage.
For eight years he strained to control mighty currents without himself being swept away. Republics are notoriously ungrateful, and it was the old soldier’s fate to have his reputation shredded by the very forces of liberty he had set in motion. The presidency cost Washington his friendship with Thomas Jefferson as it alienated him from others, in Virginia and elsewhere, whose devotion to the cause of revolutionary France temporarily blinded them to the long-term interests of the United States. Far more than either Hamilton or Jefferson, Washington was the real visionary, for he saw beyond the immediate provocations of Old World powers to a day when a mature and united America might defy every aggressor on earth.
In the end, Washington’s gloomy prophecy to David Humphreys was largely realized. The president’s brief, bittersweet retirement completed a decade-long conversion to Federalist thinking. Yet it was also during these final years, otherwise marked by loss and disillusionment, that Washington waged his greatest battle to vindicate republican government at a time when divine right held most of mankind in the grip of dead tradition. Having practically invented the American presidency, Washington left it with a sigh of relief and turned his fading energies to subduing the earth instead of recalcitrant political rivals. Today, as Napoleon anticipated in his windswept exile, the first president remains that rarest of historical figures, of whom it can be said that in conceding his humanity, we only confirm his greatness.
When concluding his translation of Sallust’s War of Jugurtha, Quintus mentions the two Roman protagonists in the conflict, Metellus and his successor, Marius, who in many ways usurped his superior’s position at high cost to the republic. Both of them were, historically speaking, great men who accomplished much. But only the duty-bound Metellus, Quintus says, might be considered a “good man” in addition to a great one.
Over and above any of his contemporaries and indeed most powerful men in history, George Washington too, was not only a great man, but a good one. In the end, he preferred liberty, including his own, to power. He answered his country out of a sense of duty over and above his personal reputation, bequeathing a legacy that has been challenged of late, but still lives on. He is a testament not only to how to live a glorious life, but how to do it in the best way for your community, and ultimately your own reputation, which elevates your glory even more.
If you want to glimpse into his mind, I heartily recommend Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation.