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The Right Side Of History


Philadelphia – Old City: Second Bank Portrait Gallery – George Washington, originally uploaded by wallyg.

Like most Americans with an interest in the history of this nation, I have always been peripherally aware of the unique seat occupied by our first president. It was not until I watched a program on the History Channel last week, however, that I at last became completely informed of the full spectrum of George Washington’s greatness. There is no doubt about it: General George is one tough act to follow.

I have since reflected on the special qualities that will ever secure Washington’s high perch in the tall mountains of history. I was not surprised, either, when our forty-forth president (long an admirer of Lincoln) invoked Washington and the Revolution rather than Lincoln and the Civil War during his inaugural address. That is because Washington’s supreme courage, coupled with his unprecedented ability to wear the suit of high office with humility, was directly responsible for the birth of a nation heralded by its citizens as “The Land of The Free and Home Of The Brave.”

In his first address to the nation as our forty forth president, a freshly inaugurated Obama eloquently recalled the dire circumstances and faltering morale confronting Washington more than two centuries ago: “The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood.” And then Obama, a great orator in his own right, channeled the words of the great orator who came before him: “Let it be told to the future world … that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it).”

On this occasion Washington’s troops rallied for the simple reason that the consummate trust they had placed in their leader had never been betrayed. In December of 1777 Washington’s army camped at Valley Forge amidst the chilling and demoralizing odds of bitter cold, dissent, disease and death. During a time when bitter winter winds howled through his camp like a host of hungry ghosts hell-bent on a mission of famine, Washington worked ceaselessly to procure more food and better conditions for his men. Despite his tireless efforts, a full fourth of his force died from disease and exposure. While many officers of lesser rank were granted furlough from the reviled camp in order to visit their families, Washington refused to grant himself the same privilege, instead staying on at Valley Forge throughout the cruel and demoralizing cold season.

His decision to stay the course at Valley Forge is a window into the strong moral character and exemplary service of General George Washington. It was these very qualities that prevented him from slipping through the spackled cracks and dust mites of history. It is easy enough to forget, for instance, that before securing the nation for future grateful generations, Washington first suffered humiliating defeats at the hands of the British. Indeed, the decks were stacked against him almost from the start.

Back in August of 1776, British General William Howe bore down on New York soil in a massive naval and land campaign designed to seize New York and decimate the newly declared free nation. Under Washington’s command, the Continental Army clashed with the British for the first time at the Battle of Long Island. The latter would prove to be the largest battle of the entire war. Eventually the U.S. army was pushed back to New Jersey, a humiliating defeat for Washington. On the eve of December 25, 1776, Washington staged a counterattack, in which he famously lead his troops across the Delaware River to capture nearly 1,000 Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey. By early January, Washington was again victorious at Princeton, but his wave of success would prove short-lived. He was subsequently defeated by British forces at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777. Howe was able to march into Philadelphia (then the American Capitol) on September 26. This humiliation was followed in short order by Washington’s unsuccessful attack of the British garrison at Germantown in early October.

The great general’s credibility began to suffer after the Philadelphia defeat. By this point, some members of Congress were in favor in having him replaced as commander of the army. Ultimately, however, his allies rallied behind him.

Washington’s failures, of course, have largely been forgotten. His ultimate victory at Yorktown, fortified by French support, is significant for many reasons; not the least because it shows a radical and important shift in his thinking. His ability to think ahead strategically, rather than to get sucked into a disastrous line of misguided, backward thinking dramatically separates him from many of history’s failed leaders. Disgruntled and ashamed by his defeat in New York, Washington was at first resolute in his determination to retake the city. He was finally convinced by General Conte de Rochambeau, commander of the French Army in America, of the physical impossibility to do so even with the combined strength of the French and American armies. Once he became convinced that he could take Yorktown, Washington changed battle strategies with remarkably decisive speed and never looked back.

Unlike a long host of demonic and power-hungry despots who came after him, including (at various times throughout history and in no particular order) the vainglorious General George Armstrong Custer, the sociopathic Adolph Hitler, the manically paranoid Richard Nixon, the rigid and punitively-fixated Vice President “Darth” Cheney and, most disastrously, the willfully spoiled Texas-frontier-frat-boy George W. Bush, Washington never forgot that he stood as a symbol of something far greater than his own limited mortality. He was a humble man who had given his life to public service, and somehow instinctively understood that the decisions he made would have far-reaching reverberations for generations to come. For this reason, he continually set his ego and personal comfort level aside in the interest of the greater public good. One of the powerfully visual ways he accomplished this was by the highly dangerous practice of riding to the front in battle, on horseback, ahead of his troops. As a boy of seventeen, four bullets ripped his coat and two horses were shot out from under him on the battlefield. As a seasoned veteran of the Revolution, he was inured to fear. He neither hid out in heavily fortified underground bunkers (a la Cheney), nor behind weak and cowardly rhetoric (a la Bush). His image was ubiquitously omnipresent and larger than life. Without exception, he rode to the front and led from the front.

When Washington took leave of his officers on December 1783 at Fraunces Tavern, he also resigned as commander-in-chief of the army and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon. This enormously symbolic gesture prompted his arch nemesis (and catalyst for the Revolution) King George III to remark incredulously “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington always inherently understood that power in its absolute sense is impermanent and belongs to no man. To relinquish power at the right time and for the right reasons is the highest act of selflessness to which any mortal can aspire. Washington rode across the battlefield when duty called, a potent image of power, but was readily eager to file off into obscurity when he felt his call of duty had terminated.

For these and many other reasons, Washington gave the young nation he founded an important lesson in leadership and maturity. If our forty-forth president can lead as courageously from the front and lay down the mighty sword of power when the time is right, he too will find himself enshrined on the right side of history.

© All rights reserved by Mary Alden-Allard. Content may not be reprinted except by express written permission of the author.

(photo courtesy of wallyg under the Creative Commons license)

Comments

Comment from shweoo
Time January 27, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Cool, very good essay(entry) i will have to admit!

It is the kind of eassy which asian people should read and learn from too even for the young or old. Especially for the people from my country “Burma”.

I love this part of your entry
“Washington always inherently understood that power in its absolute sense is impermanent and belongs to no man.

Great! And post more great picture in your flickr too!
Shwe Oo

Comment from Elefanterosado
Time January 29, 2009 at 6:06 am

Thanks so much for visiting, shweoo.

Yes, the central theme of this post is Washington’s great foresight and his ability to recognize that power, like all things, is impermanent and must be relinquished at the right time. The last eight years have been a very upsetting and turbulent time in the U.S. Bush abused power and either ignored or misread the constitution to suit his needs. He also disregarded the strong and important principles for which Washington, the father of our country, stood. Those principles are the bedrock of why America (such a young country) flourished so quickly. It wasn’t an accident.

I consider myself a Buddhist; therefore, the impermanence of all things is an important theme. 🙂

I’d love to visit Burma!