• Daniel Ethan Finneran

George Washington: As Good As His Past

October 2018


It’s one thing to sully the name of a man still living, quite another to besmirch that of him who’s since moved on. While the latter might smile upon what seems an improvement in his station, the former can make use of the few advantages the dead man lacks. Obviously, the living has at his disposal the three-pronged endowment of sensation, emotion, and cognition—of which the last is most vital to the vitality of man. Yes, it’s important to feel, more so and more human to rage or to lament, but most essential to the living is his capacity to reason and to think.


It’s by the way of reason that a man can attempt rationally to defend his name. If he’s lucky, he may even go so far as to clear it full stop. That being said, the dead, in the absence of a reasonable mind and a voice through which its contents can spill, must resort to those of us still breathing to buff out the chinks in his armor and refurbish his name.


One hardly thinks of George Washington as the type of man who would be in need of such an aesthetic overhaul. Yet, as it turns out, no man’s memory, regardless of the veneration it now demands, is beyond reproach.


President Trump brought into question General Washington’s bona fides with an interesting remark uttered a few days ago. Fielding inquiries from the press for well over an hour, the forty-fifth president said of the first that “He (George Washington) may have had a bad past, who knows? He may have had some—I think—accusations made. Didn’t he have a couple of things in his past?”.


Well, Mr. President…did he?


These little Trumpian forays into thinking out loud are usually innocuous and cute, but only insofar as no one’s legacy gets hurt along the way. And while I don’t think that Washington’s memory has in the least suffered from Trump’s whimsical musing and abusing of the great commander’s life and of historical fact, I do feel compelled to push back on Washington’s behalf. Call it an innately American sense of filial piety to that first among founding fathers and I won’t deny the charge. Or, if you will, describe it as an uneasiness about Washington’s memory being even in the slightest impugned and I shan’t object. This, as Rudyard Kipling might agree, is the living man’s burden and the patriot’s task: one must stand up in defense of our nation’s greatest man, be he living or dead.


To what indiscretions, then, was Trump referring when he broached this ungainly notion of Washington’s checkered past? For my own part, I can think of three.


The first is nearly too juvenile to be considered. However, in consideration of these childish times, I suppose nothing is too infantile to be ignored or written off the books. It could be that President Trump, in refereeing to Washington’s “bad past”, was referring to his famous arboreal assault, or, in plainer terms, his chopping down of the cherry tree.


A wealthy land-owner in what’s become present day Alexandria, Virginia, Augustine Washington had many concerns that demanded his attention one day to the next. Aside from the provincial politics in which he was expected to partake and the agricultural issues that endlessly arose, the elder (and astonishingly virile) Washington had a family to oversee.

Passing the boredom of those monotonous colonial nights, he fathered a brood of ten. His first wife, Jane Butler, bore him four handsome children (of whom only two survived into their adult years). She also added to his already sprawling estate half of her father’s own land.

Upon her premature death (a recurring theme in the Washingtonian life), Augustine re-married and was blessed with six children more. He couldn’t have known then, however, that among his near dozen children, he’d sired the father of a nation. His precocious boy George, and not the much older and more formally educated Lawrence, would turn out to be the more prosperous and memorable son.


But before young George could dream of such a vaulting legacy and a namesake town, he had to humble himself and admit the truth. Confronted by his father in the nearby woods on his estate along the Potomac, George was asked whether he did or didn’t cut down an especially fruitful cherry tree. “I cannot tell a lie” responded the chagrined child of six. Having nothing better to do with a hatchet recently given him as a gift, George admitted that he put its blade to work on that oh-so tempting tree. And while the tree itself might’ve fallen, George, the virtuous boy-wonder was raised to the clouds.


Acknowledging his misconduct, George admitted so much to his father. Augustine, in turn, looked upon his guilty son not in anger, but with a paternal sympathy that can’t long reproach the face of a contrite child. From that earliest age, George’s virtue, his fidelity, and his candor were etched in stone for all generations to esteem.


Never mind the fact that this episode never actually happened outside of the pages of a fabulist’s tale (the environmentalist, forever hugging trees, be they cherry or hickory, can rest easy tonight in knowing as much). In truth, it was the clever invention of an enterprising clergyman and literary agent, Parson Mason Locke Weems. Wanting to marry Washington’s public distinction with his more intimate virtues, Weems published a few apocryphal stories about Washington’s past. The “cherry tree” installation simply gained the most traction and succeeded in planting itself into every American soul from his day till ours.


All that being said, the question remains: was it young George’s chopping down of that mythological tree to which Trump was referring? Undoubtedly it could’ve been, as one can be assured that even the literature-loathing Donald Trump is probably well-versed in the tale. For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that it’s not. That leaves us with this: if not at hatchets and boughs and cherry trees, perhaps it was to Indians and swords his remark was aimed.


For all of the approbation showered upon Washington as America’s warrior-statesman par excellence, his track record on the battlefield is rather uninspiring. So too are the supposed tales of his triumphs—of which there were surprisingly few.


It’s not unusual to think of Washington’s military record as having been captured in but two arresting scenes: the first is that of his crossing the Delaware River en route to the future capital of the future state of New Jersey. With scabbard at one side and a future president at the other (to Washington’s right can be seen the much-overlooked James Monroe—fellow Virginian and serviceman. Of course, the painting’s aesthetic quality comes at the cost of historical accuracy; Monroe was already across the river when Washington arrived on that December night) the unflappable general stands at the tiny vessel’s bow. More than that, he stands with one foot perched on an elevated board, as though symbolically bestriding the old world and the new—the tyranny lost and the liberty gained. Etched into our memories by the German-American painter, Emanuel Leutze, this scene (painted, mind you, in the year 1851—closer in time to the Civil than the Revolutionary War) is the one to which our minds leap when the memory of Washington on the battlefield tosses about.


The second image is that of Washington’s acceptance of the British army’s surrender at Yorktown. Painted by an artist of a contemporary sort, John Trumbull (himself a soldier who served time during the Siege of Boston) painted a work that would anticipate Leutze’s as the end of a story pre-ordains its start.


However grand and exalting it may be, Trumbull’s work does have its fault. The dramatis personae, be they French, American, German, or British, are all accounted for, but one man is missing. Misleadingly, Trumbull entitled his piece The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, yet that vanquished commander is nowhere to be seen. Doubtless, his presence was everywhere felt, but that’s as far as he goes.


History tells us that Cornwallis was physically “sick” on the day of his army’s surrender, but I think the ailment was rather one of an injured pride than of a broken bone. It wasn’t long ago that Cornwallis thought it quite assured that this nettling little colonial insurrection would be his to quash. Sure, the French were now involved and had been for the past three years, but their efforts—combined with those of the Americans—hadn’t amounted to much. What’s more, Louis XVI’s magnanimity—stretching as it did from Versailles to Philadelphia—was beginning to fray. Washington continued to dither and no glorious Saratoga-like victory had seen a sequel. All the while, as America waited complacently for opportunities and Fabian attacks, British military dominance grew in the south. Virginia was invaded and South Carolina was all but swept aside. It wouldn’t be until Admiral de Grasse and the Comte de Rochambeau (through their secret correspondence) were able to convince a fixated General Washington to move away from New York and toward Yorktown, Virginia.


This, in a word, could be said to be Washington’s second of three shortcomings; he wasn’t a particularly adept military commander.


And the dear reader gasps! However heretical and downright anti-American it’s become to say, the fact of the matter is unavoidable. Washington was, at his best, a creditable, if not wholly mediocre general during the tenure of his Revolutionary commission. Not until many years later would he be considered anything more.


That said, the Leutzes and the Trumbulls of the world have succeeded in celebrating the man but distorting our view. While we imagine the doughty general as he appeared in their two snapshots—that of his crossing the Delaware and that of his looking upon the British surrender—the reality is at odds with the art. Doubtless, he was a brave, stolid, and imposing adversary, but he was also at times myopic and, at others, frustratingly monomaniacal.

From start to finish, New York was his obsession. Admittedly, so too is it in our own day, and it’s for this reason I hesitate to dump upon him more blame. What would America be, after all, if not for her Big Apple? Would we, like Washington, not also dedicate our attention to its salvation if ever she were to be put into harm’s way?


If not for Rochambeau’s persistence and de Grasse’s fleet, Washington likely would’ve stayed put at that island in the center of the world (so dubbed by the historian Russell Shorto in his book by that name) as it slowly sunk beneath the weight of the British army’s encampment. This was his commitment to that aptly-named “Empire State” as it appeared in the final stages of the war. One forgets that the state’s only “imperial” quality at that time was its designation as the last bastion of the Brits. Yet earlier in the struggle, in fact, very nearly at its outset when Great Britain didn’t have its future stronghold, Washington’s commitment was just as staunch.


As early as 1776, Washington refused to pull out from New York—a state that was demonstrably lost. Long Island had fallen, Manhattan soon followed, and Forts Washington and Lee would inevitably share in their neighbors’ fate. Intransigent nearly to the point of defeat, Washington refused to draw his troops away from the two crumbling forts—of which one bore his name. When finally the redcoats did arrive, they took captive not only some six thousand American men, but enormous caches of materiel and artillery. It was a loss of both armaments and men that the Continental army could ill afford.


Thereafter, questions regarding Washington’s fitness to serve moved from passing whispers to public debates. Americans, then as now, have always been to my great shame “fair-weather” fans. Not even Washington could escape our caprice. But what exactly was the Continental Congress who commissioned him or the population who venerated him expecting of a man whose military résumé was so obviously brief?


Having begun his adult life as a fervent outdoorsman and surveyor, Washington stumbled into a role as a commander. He landed in the British army’s Virginia outfit as a twenty-something-year-old in the middle of the 1750s. Following in the steps of his elder brother Lawrence, service in the military, he thought, was the surest way to climb the nearly unpliable or unnavigable Anglo-American hierarchy of his day. Truly, it was the only path from which he had to choose. He hadn’t the scientific panache of a Franklin, nor the literary touch of a Dickinson, nor the broad philosophical erudition of a Jefferson. He was, in a word, a man not of deep thought, but of determined and resolute action.


And it was because of his action, or because of that of those over whom he presided, that the French and Indian War got its start. And, as we know, the Seven Years’ War was to give birth to that which would last eight. It’s no exaggeration, then, to claim that Washington’s poor leadership at the Forks of the Ohio would chart a direct course to Lexington and Concord two decades hence. When he and his team slaughtered a peace-seeking expeditionary force of French soldiers (led by the ill-fated Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, whose name now survives as a Western Pennsylvania Methodist retreat), the seeds of the American Revolution were sown in that colony of peace-loving Quakers and watered with French blood.


That’s not to say, of course, that all of Washington’s military exploits were ignominious or carried out in vain. What would Trenton, or Princeton, or Boston be if not for his sieges and Yuletide assaults? Nevertheless, on the balance, his military career doesn’t speak to his credit.


Though not one to be confused with some dusty old military historian, could it be that Trump was making a reference to Washington’s soldiering past when he spoke of our first general’s badness? Again, I think not. To find the meaning of the forty-fifth president’s comment about the first, one more place need be searched. In fact, a third and final fault demands still to be named if we’re to round out Washington’s trinity of sins. And for this last and most repugnant of faults, I pick the lowest hanging fruit. That is, of course, Washington’s ownership of slaves.

Lamentably, at least in this regard, Washington was very much a man of his time. At the age of eleven, he had almost as many slaves as years. By the time he reached his twenties, he was one of Virginia’s best-endowed overlords. Upon marrying our first First Lady Martha Dandridge, George’s stock of bondsmen nearly doubled. She carried over with her a whopping one-hundred and fifty-three slaves to add to his one-hundred and twenty-three.

Few ladies of her day could flaunt so many bondsmen; hers were the result of an inheritance due to a spouse who had recently deceased. In time, through a dowry, and through the game of speculation, the new Washington family’s estate grew. So too did its chattel, and it did so in a commensurate way.


For all his (and his slaves’) efforts, however, Mount Vernon was seldom a lucrative estate; its soil was more fickle than fertile. Much as he studied every advancement in the field of agricultural science, his crop yield was never such that he could leave the topic alone. His fellow Virginian and House of Burgesses comrade George Mason recognized Washington’s agronomic ardor and offered him his best advice. The two exchanged notes on the matter as we moderns exchange gossip. Nevertheless, all of Mason’s advice availed him little and ultimately Washington switched from his staple of tobacco to crops less taxing on the earth and draining on his pocket. He opted for the likes of hemp, flax, and wheat, and much later the sober slaveholder even began distilling whiskey.


But to put into practice his ambitious ideas was another matter. Washington was, after all, a soldier, a statesman, and a planter—yet of the three, he was the third in only an abstract sense. The “planting”, as it were, would be left to his and Martha’s combined quarter of a thousand slaves. In regard to his treatment of his slaves, some visitors to Mount Vernon recalled his demeanor as being lenient and magnanimous. Families, in his opinion, were not to be divided. Others who’d passed through his home attested that his comportment toward his slaves was unforgiving and severe. This, I think, captures in a microcosm his broader thought as it pertained to that once peculiar, now odious institution.


On the question of slavery, Washington can be said to have been woefully ambivalent. It appears to be the case that he had strong feelings and personal convictions on either side of the issue. He refused the enlistment of black Americans into the Continental Army, but fumed when Lord Dunmore offered them their liberty if only for the small price of wearing a red coat. In time, he relented to the pressures of widespread defections and under-recruitment and allowed blacks to bear arms and play their part. His recognition of the utility of these early “Buffalo Soldiers” came only after stubborn resistance to the very idea. The general’s vexation on the matter stretched beyond the battlefield and into the subsequent talks of peace. At war’s end, Washington was equally peeved by Britain’s refusal to return ill-gotten American “property”, by which he meant slaves. It was unconscionable for them to keep, without scruples nor a bill of sale, that which rightfully belonged to his fellow patriots and to him.


His ambivalence followed him to the Oval Office, thence to Mt. Vernon, and finally to the grave. As president, Washington oversaw the passage of both the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 and the Northwest Ordinance established two years before. Together, their combined effect would succeed at offering a conflicted vision of America’s future.


The Fugitive Slave Act (the original and not its 1850 sequel) was intended to give teeth to the Constitutional clause that bears the same name. Today, rightly, we read its words in Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 as the document’s most archaic and repugnant, but in Washington’s time, it was of acute import. The convention’s southern delegates, in whose crowd Washington undoubtedly mixed, simply wouldn’t ratify a Constitution without it. “No person held to service or labor in one state”, reads the clause, “shall be discharged from such service or labor” even if she were to escape from a “state” of repression to one of freer pastures. Instead, pursuant to the clause, she “shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due”. In other words, regardless of her circumstance and all that frippery about “liberty for all”, she as the slave would be returned to her master—no questions asked. The convention delegates were mindful not to expound much further as to how this might be done; the means of her re-capture would be left up to the savage imagination of an angry owner on the hunt. Eventually, said means would include bounties and bloodhounds, the latter of which would earn the first half of its name.


As for the Northwest Ordinance, its 1787 enactment served to plant in the American soul the novel concept of “free soil”. Heretofore, no such idea on the North American landmass had existed; no state nor colony had been so explicitly free upon its inception. Trans-Appalachia, or the area just beyond that marvelous, mountainous trail from Georgia to Maine, was just the place for the idea to take root and the experiment to get underway.


This still beautiful and enticing region (particularly in the autumn months) was claimed by many but settled by one. Spain, Britain, Indian, France, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—all declared their sole proprietorship of the area at one time or another. The British and French sought it from above, the Spanish from below, and the Natives by right, but it would be America who would ultimately take her residence there. And, wanting to avoid the imported sins of her European ancestors, she decided against allowing slavery to occupy its land.

Fast-forward three-quarters of a century toward our own day and this same land, now demarcating north from south, would become the tinderbox of America’s second civil war.

One can see, through the passage of these divergent acts under the stroke of his pen, that the sanctity of liberty was for Washington a curious thing. Above all, it was a slow revelation.

In truth, it only arrived at his doorstep only very late in life. It was like Constantine’s baptism just before the sinful emperor’s last breath. Perhaps no longer capable of tolerating the cognitive dissonance of having led and fought a war for independence so that the black man might keep his chains, Washington did something unusual for both his stature and his time.

In his will, written by his own hand, he made excruciatingly clear what was to be done with his slaves. The eldest among them, having rightly earned an early discharge from their work, were to be supported by the funds of his estate. The youngest were to be educated or apprenticed in some kind of a “useful trade”. While their employability and their commercial success was far from certain, their freedom was guaranteed.


Noble and progressive though his will certainly was, it could never be executed to the fullest degree. You see, not all of the slaves laboring at Mount Vernon were his to manumit; at least half were held in Martha’s trust. Only upon her death would their station change, but that’s not to say it would change for the better. According to her first nuptial agreement (George was her second husband), they would be referred to her first husband’s family’s estate. Even in death, this strikes me as perfectly consistent with the man whose inconsistencies make for a founding father deserving of both our veneration and frustration.


If you expect the applause of posterity, you mustn’t then retreat from the eyes of history. After all, a legacy is born of an actual life, and a life arises from its details. Therein the devil lies, waiting, always ready to be revealed. In calling out Washington’s “bad past”, Trump cast his gaze in search of such demons, perhaps wanting in the process to conceal his own. Yet of those demons, he must choose among three: cherry trees, soldiering, or slavery. Which one damns you to a “bad past”?

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