Washington





The brilliant historian of the English people [*] has written of

Washington, that "no nobler figure ever stood in the fore-front of a

nation's life." In any book which undertakes to tell, no matter how

slightly, the story of some of the heroic deeds of American history,

that noble figure must always stand in the fore-front. But to sketch the

life of Washington even in the barest outline is to write the history

of the events which made the United States independent and gave birth

to the American nation. Even to give alist of what he did, to name his

battles and recount his acts as president, would be beyond the limit and

the scope of this book. Yet it is always possible to recall the man and

to consider what he was and what he meant for us and for mankind He is

worthy the study and the remembrance of all men, and to Americans he is

at once a great glory of their past and an inspiration and an assurance

of their future.



* John Richard Green.





To understand Washington at all we must first strip off all the myths

which have gathered about him. We must cast aside into the dust-heaps

all the wretched inventions of the cherry-tree variety, which were

fastened upon him nearly seventy years after his birth. We must look at

him as he looked at life and the facts about him, without any illusion

or deception, and no man in history can better stand such a scrutiny.



Born of a distinguished family in the days when the American colonies

were still ruled by an aristocracy, Washington started with all that

good birth and tradition could give. Beyond this, however, he had

little. His family was poor, his mother was left early a widow, and he

was forced after a very limited education to go out into the world to

fight for himself He had strong within him the adventurous spirit of

his race. He became a surveyor, and in the pursuit of this profession

plunged into the wilderness, where he soon grew to be an expert hunter

and backwoodsman. Even as a boy the gravity of his character and

his mental and physical vigor commended him to those about him, and

responsibility and military command were put in his hands at an age when

most young men are just leaving college. As the times grew threatening

on the frontier, he was sent on a perilous mission to the Indians, in

which, after passing through many hardships and dangers, he achieved

success. When the troubles came with France it was by the soldiers under

his command that the first shots were fired in the war which was to

determine whether the North American continent should be French or

English. In his earliest expedition he was defeated by the enemy. Later

he was with Braddock, and it was he who tried, to rally the broken

English army on the stricken field near Fort Duquesne. On that day

of surprise and slaughter he displayed not only cool courage but the

reckless daring which was one of his chief characteristics. He so

exposed himself that bullets passed through his coat and hat, and the

Indians and the French who tried to bring him down thought he bore a

charmed life. He afterwards served with distinction all through the

French war, and when peace came he went back to the estate which he had

inherited from his brother, the most admired man in Virginia.



At that time he married, and during the ensuing years he lived the life

of a Virginia planter, successful in his private affairs and serving the

public effectively but quietly as a member of the House of Burgesses.

When the troubles with the mother country began to thicken he was slow

to take extreme ground, but he never wavered in his belief that all

attempts to oppress the colonies should be resisted, and when he once

took up his position there was no shadow of turning. He was one of

Virginia's delegates to the first Continental Congress, and, although

he said but little, he was regarded by all the representatives from

the other colonies as the strongest man among them. There was something

about him even then which commanded the respect and the confidence of

every one who came in contact with him.



It was from New England, far removed from his own State, that the demand

came for his appointment as commander-in-chief of the American army.

Silently he accepted the duty, and, leaving Philadelphia, took command

of the army at Cambridge. There is no need to trace him through the

events that followed. From the time when he drew his sword under the

famous elm tree, he was the embodiment of the American Revolution, and

without him that revolution would have failed almost at the start. How

he carried it to victory through defeat and trial and every possible

obstacle is known to all men.



When it was all over he found himself facing a new situation. He was the

idol of the country and of his soldiers. The army was unpaid, and the

veteran troops, with arms in their hands, were eager to have him take

control of the disordered country as Cromwell had done in England

a little more than a century before. With the army at his back, and

supported by the great forces which, in every community, desire order

before everything else, and are ready to assent to any arrangement which

will bring peace and quiet, nothing would have been easier than for

Washington to have made himself the ruler of the new nation. But that

was not his conception of duty, and he not only refused to have anything

to do with such a movement himself, but he repressed, by his dominant

personal influence, all such intentions on the part of the army. On

the 23d of December, 1783, he met the Congress at Annapolis, and there

resigned his commission. What he then said is one of the two most

memorable speeches ever made in the United States, and is also memorable

for its meaning and spirit among all speeches ever made by men. He spoke

as follows:



"Mr. President:--The great events on which my resignation depended having

at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere

congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them, to

surrender into their hands the trust committed to me and to claim the

indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.



Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignity and

pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming

a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I

accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so

arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the

rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union,

and the patronage of Heaven.



The successful termination of the war has verified the most sanguine

expectations, and my gratitude for the interposition of Providence and

the assistance I have received from my countrymen increases with every

review of the momentous contest.



While I repeat my obligations to the Army in general, I should do

injustice to my own feelings not to acknowledge, in this place, the

peculiar services and distinguished merits of the Gentlemen who have

been attached to my person during the war. It was impossible that the

choice of confidential officers to compose my family should have been

more fortunate. Permit me, sir, to recommend in particular those

who have continued in service to the present moment as worthy of the

favorable notice and patronage of Congress.



I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my

official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the

protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of

them to His holy keeping.



Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great

theatre of action, and, bidding an affectionate farewell to this

august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my

commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life."



The great master of English fiction, writing of this scene at Annapolis,

says: "Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed--the opening

feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington?

Which is the noble character for after ages to admire--yon fribble

dancing in lace and spangles, or yonder hero who sheathes his sword

after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage

indomitable and a consummate victory?"



Washington did not refuse the dictatorship, or, rather, the opportunity

to take control of the country, because he feared heavy responsibility,

but solely because, as a high-minded and patriotic man, he did not

believe in meeting the situation in that way. He was, moreover, entirely

devoid of personal ambition, and had no vulgar longing for personal

power. After resigning his commission he returned quietly to Mount

Vernon, but he did not hold himself aloof from public affairs. On the

contrary, he watched their course with the utmost anxiety. He saw the

feeble Confederation breaking to pieces, and he soon realized that that

form of government was an utter failure. In a time when no American

statesman except Hamilton had yet freed himself from the local feelings

of the colonial days, Washington was thoroughly national in all his

views. Out of the thirteen jarring colonies he meant that a nation

should come, and he saw--what no one else saw--the destiny of the

country to the westward. He wished a nation founded which should cross

the Alleghanies, and, holding the mouths of the Mississippi, take

possession of all that vast and then unknown region. For these reasons

he stood at the head of the national movement, and to him all men turned

who desired a better union and sought to bring order out of chaos. With

him Hamilton and Madison consulted in the preliminary stages which

were to lead to the formation of a new system. It was his vast personal

influence which made that movement a success, and when the convention

to form a constitution met at Philadelphia, he presided over its

deliberations, and it was his commanding will which, more than anything

else, brought a constitution through difficulties and conflicting

interests which more than once made any result seem well-nigh hopeless.

When the Constitution formed at Philadelphia had been ratified by the

States, all men turned to Washington to stand at the head of the new

government. As he had borne the burden of the Revolution, so he now

took up the task of bringing the government of the Constitution into

existence. For eight years he served as president. He came into

office with a paper constitution, the heir of a bankrupt, broken-down

confederation. He left the United States, when he went out of office,

an effective and vigorous government. When he was inaugurated, we

had nothing but the clauses of the Constitution as agreed to by the

Convention. When he laid down the presidency, we had an organized

government, an established revenue, a funded debt, a high credit, an

efficient system of banking, a strong judiciary, and an army. We had a

vigorous and well-defined foreign policy; we had recovered the western

posts, which, in the hands of the British, had fettered our march to the

west; and we had proved our power to maintain order at home, to repress

insurrection, to collect the national taxes, and to enforce the laws

made by Congress. Thus Washington had shown that rare combination of the

leader who could first destroy by revolution, and who, having led his

country through a great civil war, was then able to build up a new and

lasting fabric upon the ruins of a system which had been overthrown.

At the close of his official service he returned again to Mount Vernon,

and, after a few years of quiet retirement, died just as the century in

which he had played so great a part was closing.



Washington stands among the greatest men of human history, and those in

the same rank with him are very few. Whether measured by what he did, or

what he was, or by the effect of his work upon the history of mankind,

in every aspect he is entitled to the place he holds among the greatest

of his race. Few men in all time have such a record of achievement.

Still fewer can show at the end of a career so crowded with high

deeds and memorable victories a life so free from spot, a character

so unselfish and so pure, a fame so void of doubtful points demanding

either defense or explanation. Eulogy of such a life is needless, but it

is always important to recall and to freshly remember just what manner

of man he was. In the first place he was physically a striking figure.

He was very tall, powerfully made, with a strong, handsome face. He

was remarkably muscular and powerful. As a boy he was a leader in all

outdoor sports. No one could fling the bar further than he, and no one

could ride more difficult horses. As a young man he became a woodsman

and hunter. Day after day he could tramp through the wilderness with his

gun and his surveyor's chain, and then sleep at night beneath the stars.

He feared no exposure or fatigue, and outdid the hardiest backwoodsman

in following a winter trail and swimming icy streams. This habit of

vigorous bodily exercise he carried through life. Whenever he was at

Mount Vernon he gave a large part of his time to fox-hunting, riding

after his hounds through the most difficult country. His physical power

and endurance counted for much in his success when he commanded his

army, and when the heavy anxieties of general and president weighed upon

his mind and heart.



He was an educated, but not a learned man. He read well and remembered

what he read, but his life was, from the beginning, a life of action,

and the world of men was his school. He was not a military genius like

Hannibal, or Caesar, or Napoleon, of which the world has had only three

or four examples. But he was a great soldier of the type which the

English race has produced, like Marlborough and Cromwell, Wellington,

Grant, and Lee. He was patient under defeat, capable of large

combinations, a stubborn and often reckless fighter, a winner of

battles, but much more, a conclusive winner in a long war of varying

fortunes. He was, in addition, what very few great soldiers or

commanders have ever been, a great constitutional statesman, able to

lead a people along the paths of free government without undertaking

himself to play the part of the strong man, the usurper, or the savior

of society.



He was a very silent man. Of no man of equal importance in the world's

history have we so few sayings of a personal kind. He was ready enough

to talk or to write about the public duties which he had in hand, but he

hardly ever talked of himself. Yet there can be no greater error than

to suppose Washington cold and unfeeling, because of his silence and

reserve. He was by nature a man of strong desires and stormy passions.

Now and again he would break out, even as late as the presidency, into

a gust of anger that would sweep everything before it. He was always

reckless of personal danger, and had a fierce fighting spirit which

nothing could check when it was once unchained.



But as a rule these fiery impulses and strong passions were under the

absolute control of an iron will, and they never clouded his judgment or

warped his keen sense of justice.



But if he was not of a cold nature, still less was he hard or unfeeling.

His pity always went out to the poor, the oppressed, or the unhappy, and

he was all that was kind and gentle to those immediately about him.



We have to look carefully into his life to learn all these things, for

the world saw only a silent, reserved man, of courteous and serious

manner, who seemed to stand alone and apart, and who impressed every one

who came near him with a sense of awe and reverence.



One quality he had which was, perhaps, more characteristic of the man

and his greatness than any other. This was his perfect veracity of mind.

He was, of course, the soul of truth and honor, but he was even more

than that. He never deceived himself He always looked facts squarely in

the face and dealt with them as such, dreaming no dreams, cherishing no

delusions, asking no impossibilities,--just to others as to himself, and

thus winning alike in war and in peace.



He gave dignity as well as victory to his country and his cause. He was,

in truth, a "character for after ages to admire."





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