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George Washington: Prudent Warrior — Apr. 1989

Firmness of principle, but flexibility of means.

By From the April 1989 issue

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In honor of president's day, the Spectator will be republishing this week essays and reviews on our nation's best — and worst — leaders.


George Washington: A Collection
Edited by W.B. Allen/Liberty Fund/561 pp $22.95

Brothers: I am a Warrior, My Words are few and plain; but I will make good what I say.
—George Washington, Speech to the Delaware chiefs, May 12, 1779

How refreshing for the chiefs to hear such straightforward language from the mouth of a white man. In this address the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army told the Delaware that cooperation with the United States would be rewarded as much as confrontation would be punished; they had his word on that. Such was the popular trust reposited in the name George Washington that less than a decade later the establishment of the American nation would rest on much the same foundation: his honor.

Two centuries of accumulated political hagiography have unfortunately left the Father of the American nation more myth than man. In sharp contrast to Lincoln, whose backwoods Illinois manner and awkward physique make his memory so human Washington remains the marble bust in the pantheon – America’s cold Cincinnatus. But now the Liberty Fund has taken a singular step toward a more lifelike portrait with the publication of George Washington: A Collection. Edited by William B. Allen, a professor of government at Harvey Mudd College at Claremont, the work assembles some 235 letters, notes, and speeches as brushstrokes to fill in some of the missing detail surrounding the first President. Professor Allen explains that the collection is designed to be “a tool of general information and not a critical study, and so apart from some helpful introductory notes to each section, he remains unobtrusively in the background. The voice is Washington’s own.

The story that thus unfolds is of a life fixed on one central idea: the union of thirteen fractious British colonies into a single nation. “Nothing I more sincerely wish than a union of the colonies,” writes Washington in April 1756. The time was the French and Indian War, Washington was in the service of the Crown, and the words were therefore in the context of colonial self-defense. Yet when his sovereign’s Parliament began deliberately to trample on “the valuable rights of Americans, confirmed to them by charter,” Washington easily came to argue for an Independent union. In today’s climate, such single-minded devotion to a nation that hardly existed outside his own circle would have Washington dismissed as an ideologue. George III would be the pragmatist.

Without union, in fact, the defeat of the British appeared to Washington a colossal waste. “We now have a National character to establish,” said the General, still speaking of a United States before it was a fact. In his announcement of the end to the War of Independence, he referred to it as the “laying of the foundation of a great Empire” upon which “the density of unborn Millions” would depend. The basis for this experiment would be liberty – properly understood, as they said back in those days:

Liberty, when it degenerates into licentiousness, begets confusion, and frequently ends in Tyranny or some woeful catastrophe, and to suppose that the Affairs of this Continent can be conducted by thirteen distinct Sovereignties, or by one without adequate powers, are mere solecisms in politicks. It is in our United capacity we are known, and have a place among the Nations of the Earth.

Nor was the General above hyperbole in pushing the point. In his famous Circular Letter to the States he likened Americans to “actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seemed to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and Felicity.” Characteristically, he added that if his countrymen should fail in this endeavor “the fault will be entirely [sic] their own.”

This dry appreciation for the human capacity for mischief is a side of Washington all too obscured by tales of cherry trees and wooden teeth. As a man of the Enlightenment he obviously believed in the primacy of liberty and reason. Yet as a seasoned officer the General had little patience for the refashioning of mankind. “We must take the passions of Men as Nature has given them,” he writes to John Banister from Valley Forge, though he did not necessarily mean to put up with them. Washington’s Orders of the Day, for example, are full of reference to soldiers being court-martialed and executed for various infractions; there is no hint of agonized waffling. Certainly the letters also show that he was always willing to go the extra mile, but no further. In his second term as President he showed this by calling out 15,000 militiamen to deal with Pennsylvania farmers who were defying a congressional tax on spirits and had rejected all reasonable overtures. This was much the same sentiment made explicit in his second Presidential Address. “If we desire to avoid insult,” he said, “we must be able to repel it.” Evidently the man from Mount Vernon was of the speak-softly-and-carry-a-big-stick school.

Washington showed similar resolve on political issues when he thought Congress was poaching on his executive powers. At the end of his first term, he refused a House request to disclose the instructions he had given his emissary in negotiating the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain. He told Congress that, although he had “no disposition to withhold any information which the duty of my station will permit,” he would “admit then a right in the House to demand, and to have as a matter of course, all the papers respecting a negotiation with a foreign power, would be to establish a dangerous precedent.” It was an elegant, eighteenth-century version of “Read My Lips.”

Finally, there is the private side. On learning of the marriage of the Marquis de Chastellux, for example, Washington takes a break from his furious lobbying on behalf of the draft constitution to offer an amused commentary on the fatal lure of domestic felicity. “A wife!” he writes. “Well my dear marquis, I can hardly refrain from smiling to find you caught at last.” There is his long correspondence with Lafayette, which as years passed would come to reflect Washington’s concern at the appalling developments in Revolutionary Paris. And there is, too, Washington’s last will and testament, in which the President granted all his slaves freedom upon the death of his wife, with the firm command that his wishes in this matter were not to be crossed by the scale of these slaves “under any pretense whatsoever.”

Still, concern for the Union is never far away in Professor Allen’s collection: as Washington himself admitted to Alexander Hamilton, “all my private letters have teamed with these sentiments.” For all this passion, however, what also emerges from this correspondence is that Washington’s chief political virtue was prudence: firmness of principle matched by flexibility of means. In the city that today bears his name this is a lesson worth reviewing, in that it was precisely the former that permitted the latter.

“Brothers: I am a Warrior. My words are few and plain; but I will make good what I say.” As he would do so often in the years to come, whether the issue be pay for his officers or passage of the Constitution, the sole guarantee Washington would give was his word, as though that alone were enough. It is a measure of the man’s standing that it almost always was. 

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