Day By Day

Monday, December 14, 2009

This Day In History

Today is "National Bouillabaisse Day". Yum! It's just a fancy term for fish stew, but properly prepared it is one of my favorite meals. Fanatical foodies claim that to get the best stuff you have to go to France, and especially to Marsailles, but I seem to remember getting a pretty tasty stew at Cafe Nola in Philly. Of course that was a while ago.

On this day in 1799 former President George Washington died on his estate at Mount Vernon, Va. I refuse to engage in the silly game of ranking the presidents, but a very good case could be made for considering our first president to have been the greatest of them all and George was certainly the greatest man ever to hold the office.

George Washington was not the most brilliant man of his generation (far from it), but he was intelligent, ambitious, persistent, and blessed with an abundance of good sense. And, all who knew him agreed, he was a man of sterling character. George Washington was the man everyone trusted. He was the one you could rely on. He was the "essential man".

As a military commander Washington lost a lot of battles, but he maintained the loyalty of his troops, pursued a successful long-term strategy, and ultimately won the war. When there was a threat of a military coup, a simple address from Washington ended it. When internal turmoil threatened to destroy the new American states, Washington lent his considerable prestige to plans to call a constitutional convention, and when it met he presided over its deliberations. During the ratification debate over whether or not the States would accept the new constitution, the most telling argument advanced by those who favored a federal union was that the new government could be trusted because George Washington would be in charge of it. As president Washington wisely followed a course of neutrality in the great conflicts that afflicted the Atlantic world, thus preserving the nation's independence and denying the great powers reason to interfere in our affairs. Domestically he strongly asserted the authority of the federal government over the States and promoted programs that placed the nation on a firm financial footing.

After two terms in office Washington retired. To contemporaries this was perhaps his greatest accomplishment. Twice he turned down opportunities that other men would have welcomed. The army would have made him king, but he refused the honor, and he could have remained president indefinitely, but he retired and passed power to other, lesser men. For doing so -- for subordinating personal ambition to the needs of the republic he gained world fame as "the American Cincinnatus" -- a man so noble that he could turn down ultimate power. For this King George III named Washington the "greatest man of his age". Supposedly Napoleon in exile recognized Washington's greatness when he explained his downfall by stating that "they wanted me to be another Washington."

Henry Lee (father of Robert E.) famously eulogized Washington in these words:

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting...Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues...Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.

Such a man, indeed!

And on this day in 1889 the American Academy of Political and Social Science was organized in Philadelphia.

And on this day in 1911 the "great race for the pole" ended when Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, leading a team of six men and sixteen dogs, reached the South Pole 35 days before a rival British team led by Robert Scott. You can read an account of the Amundsen expedition here. The ill-fated Scott expedition [the team all died on the return trip] is chronicled here.

And on this day in 1946 the United Nations adopted a resolution banning the Atomic Bomb. Much good that did!