Day By Day

Monday, February 22, 2010

This Day In History

Today is George Washington's birthday. Historians may quibble over whether or not Washington was our greatest president, but there is no doubt that he was the greatest figure to ever hold the office. He was, as a recent biographer called him, "the indispensable man". As commander of the Continental Army he forged a successful strategy, maintained the loyalty of his troops, engaged in constant political negotiations with Congress, State governments and with the French that kept the military effort afloat, squashed an incipient military revolt, and became the living embodiment of the movement for American independence. If that were all, he would deserve to be called the "Father of the Country" [a description applied to him as early as 1778], but there was more, much more.

At the end of the war, King George III asked what Washington would do next. When told that the great man intended to retire to his country estate the King replied, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." He was right. Washington's retirement and his determined refusal to accept efforts to make him an American despot, made him world famous. He was hailed everywhere as "the American Cincinnatus" -- a reference to the Roman general who repeatedly came out of retirement to save the republic, then when the crisis passed, went back to his farm.

Later, when disputes within and between States threatened their unity Washington came out of retirement to preside over the Constitutional Convention. So great was his prestige that during the ratification debate the most persuasive argument advanced by the "federalists" [supporters of a federal union] was the assurance that George Washington would be heading up the new government. It is not unreasonable to suggest that without Washington's leadership there would have been no federal constitution.

As president Washington followed a consistent course of strengthening and protecting the federal union from both internal and external threats. Over strong opposition he suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion, made peace with Britain, promoted the establishment of a national bank, and maintained a policy of neutrality in the ongoing conflict between France and Britain. Then, after two terms of office, he retired again, this time for good. His farewell address, a warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and foreign involvements, sketched out the principles on which he had governed -- a scrupulous avoidance of all actions and policies that would imperil the unity and independence of the republic. Upon his death in 1799, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee famously described him as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen...."

Later, Napoleon in exile at Elba explained what had led to his downfall. He said, "they wanted me to be another Washington." He went on to explain that the circumstances in France were such that he could not have measured up to Washington's standard.
As for me, I could only have been a Washington with a crown, amid a congress of conquered kings. Only under such circumstances could I have shown his moderation, wisdom, and disinterestedness. These I could attain only by a universal dictatorship, such as, indeed, I strove for.
In utterances such as these, Napoleon Bonaparte, once the master of Europe, tacitly admitted that Washington was the greater man. Such was the reputation of the American Cincinnatus. It is altogether appropriate that we take some time today to remember him.

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