These remarks were delivered on February 20, 2003.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.
Commander in Chief of the Continental Forces. President of the Federal Convention. President of the United States.
His rank was general. His official title was Commander in Chief of the United Colonies. His assignment was straightforward, although the odds were overwhelming: Defeat the most powerful armed forces in the world.
The Continental Congress had created a Continental Army. But land forces were not enough. The General armed merchant ships. The privateers became known as Washington's Navy. Later, the Continental Congress provided funds for the Continental Navy, which was to sail under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins. And from the beginning, the General desired joint operations.
The following year the principles at stake were set forth in one of the most eloquent statements of faith ever written:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
King George III was not impressed. The war continued.
For George Washington, Commander in Chief was more than a title. He was in the thick of the fight. Bullets whizzed by him, sometimes tearing his clothing. Horses were shot from under him. When his men fled, he chased after them, demanding their return and their best efforts.
Washington was truly Commander in Chief. But he was not a law unto himself. When he was uncertain of his authority, he contacted John Adams, the head of the Continental Board of War and Ordnance. "Your commission constitutes you commander of all the forces..., " Adams replied, "and you are vested with full power and authority to act as you shall think for the good and welfare of the service." Later, Washington wrote Adams, saying, "I am exceedingly desirous of consulting you." And that was constant. The Commander in Chief kept the Continental Congress informed.
His humility was a cloak. It was a complement to any outfit and more than an ordinary garment. As Lieutenant Colonel Patrick Ferguson, a Scottish officer in the Royal Army, explained:
We had not lain long when a rebel officer marked by a hussar dress, passed toward our army, within a hundred yards of my right flank, not perceiving us. He was followed by another dressed in dark green and blue, mounted on a bay horse, with a remarkably high cocked hat. I ordered three good shots to steal near to and fire at them; but the idea disgusting me, I recalled the order. The hussar, in returning, made a circuit, but the other officer passed within a hundred yards of us, upon which I advanced from the woods toward him. Upon my calling, he stopped; but after looking at me, he proceeded. I could have lodged half a dozen balls in or about him but it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty--so I let him alone.
The day after, rebel officers who were wounded told us that General Washington was all the morning with the light troops, and only attended by a French officer in hussar dress, he himself dressed and mounted in every point as above described. I am not sorry that I did not know at the time who it was.
As it is written, "When a man's ways please the LORD, he maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him." (Proverbs 16:7, KJV) Humility was a blessing.
If defeat and retreat were a song, the tune was one the patriots frequently played. The situation seemed hopeless. Then there were victories at Trenton and Princeton. Another followed at Saratoga, and France began to openly support the American cause.
With the defeat of the British at Yorktown, through joint operations, the last major battle had been fought. Negotiations appealed to the mother country. Two years later, the Treaty of Paris was signed. The United Colonies were free and independent states.
His mission accomplished, Washington gave his sword to the Continental Congress. He returned to Mount Vernon.
The Articles of Confederation were inadequate during the war. Things did not improve with peace. Alexander Hamilton, in support of something new, wrote, among other things, a series of newspaper articles entitled The Continentalist. James Madison also favored change, as did the former Commander in Chief. "Thirteen sovereignties," he noted, "pulling against each other, and all tugging at the federal head, will soon bring ruin on the whole."
Finally delegates assembled in Philadelphia. Washington was unanimously elected President of the Federal Convention. He wanted a strong national government. But the obstacle remained. He was concerned. "The primary cause of all disorders lies in the different state governments and in the tenacity of that power which pervades the whole of their systems...." He was concerned--and with reason. "Weak at home and disregarded abroad is our present condition, and contemptible enough it is."
Whether seated at the raised dais or with the rest of the Virginia delegation, when the Convention went into the Committee of the Whole, Washington was quiet. Yet his influence was great. Delegates watched his face to see if he smiled or frowned in response to various proposals. "His presence," said Catherine Drinker Bowen, "kept the Federal Convention together, kept it going, just as his presence had kept a straggling, ill-conditioned army together throughout the terrible years of war."
After four months, the Convention's work was done. The result was sent to the conventions of the several States and was ratified. Washington was pleased:
Upon the whole, I doubt whether the opposition to the Constitution will not ultimately be productive of more good than evil; it has called forth, in its defence, abilities which would not perhaps have been otherwise exerted that have thrown new light upon the science of government, they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner, as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.
Mount Vernon was his first choice. And he was his country's.
"I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any point of my conduct that may not hereafter be drawn into precedent."
With his left hand on the Bible and his right raised, Washington took the oath as President of the United States. He added four words: "So help me God!"
In the fall, the President issued a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. He acted at the request of both Houses of Congress. But the President did not see himself as Defender of the Faith. "There is a God for...Washington....," says Jacob Needleman. "This God is not the God of any one church or sect or religion." And, in referring to the God of Truth, Needleman remarks on the significance: "When Truth becomes one's God it becomes more than the kind of alienated thinking that has characterized the modern ideal of reason. It becomes love as well."
When Europe was at war, President Washington considered the national interest. He issued a Proclamation of Neutrality. The United States stayed at peace.
The President was serious about his duty to "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." At word of the Whiskey Rebellion, he mounted up and personally reviewed the troops commanded by Henry Lee, Light Horse Harry, a cavalry officer in the Revolutionary War. The farmers in four counties of western Pennsylvania would have to pay their taxes.
Washington could have been President until death. And he knew it. "I can see no propriety in precluding ourselves from the service of any man, who on some great emergency shall be deemed universally most capable of serving the public." Nevertheless, he stepped down, a successor was elected, and the two-term tradition was established.
He had answered his country's call. Now Mount Vernon beckoned.
Character, according to the dictionary, means engraving or imprint. But it is more. Character is the union of thought, word, and deed directed toward a noble end.
His contemporaries compared him to Cincinnatus, the Roman citizen who was asked by the Senate's messengers to leave his fields and save the Republic when the enemy stood ready to end its life. He did so and then promptly returned to farming.
When the Federal Convention finished a day's work, Washington went back to the home of Robert Morris. Host and hostess appreciated their unassuming guest. More than once they were surprised to find him working on his papers or lost in thought. Morris was moved to describe Washington to a neighbor as "the only man in whose presence he felt any awe." And he was not alone.
Posterity remembered and respected its progenitor. Frederick Douglass decried the desecration of his memory. "Washington," he said, "could not die until he had broken the chains of his slaves." Perhaps Douglass recalled how, during the Revolutionary War, Washington recruited free blacks into the service, and urged the Continental Congress to approve and continue the practice. Five thousand would ultimately serve.
Some set the standard; others follow suit. Unlike any of his successors, Washington gave his prestige to the Presidency. "The historically unique combination of great power and great limitation that distinguishes the American Presidency," Jacob Needleman observes, "is almost entirely a mirror reflection of the character of Washington."
Among historians, there is an old debate: Do men make events, or do events make men? In The Federalist Papers, John Jay offers insight:
They who have turned their attention to the affairs of men must have perceived that there are tides in them; tides very irregular in their duration, strength, and direction, and seldom found to run twice exactly in the same manner or measure. To discern and to profit by these tides in national affairs is the business of those who preside over them; and they who have had much experience on this head inform us that there frequently are occasions when days, nay, even when hours, are precious. The loss of a battle, the death of a prince, the removal of a minister, or other circumstances intervening to change the present posture and aspect of affairs may turn the most favorable tide into a course opposite to our wishes. As in the field, so in the cabinet, there are moments to be seized as they pass, and they who preside in either should be left in capacity to improve them.
America was the stage; the globe the theater. And all the men and women merely players. They had their exits and their entrances. And one man in his time played many parts.
Commander in Chief of the United Colonies. President of the Federal Convention. President of the United States.
When the bell tolled, Representative Henry Lee--Light Horse Harry--paid tribute to George Washington:
"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
(c) 2003 Marvin D. Jones. All rights reserved.