Monday, February 16, 2009

G.W. 2/22/1732

He was born into a small-time aristocracy—and let’s put more emphasis on “small-time” than “aristocracy,” if indeed a self-proclaimed elite on the edge of the world can be called aristocratic. Having lost his father as a child, the family’s status was insecure, and the boy was forced to rely on his older brother for his education. But there is little doubt he was ambitious. He picked up the useful skill of surveying, handy for the real estate speculation that would so decisively shape his fortunes. He also showed a penchant for making useful political connections, managing to get himself named a non-commissioned officer in the army, only to endure a series of military blunders in the French and Indian War. He’d never be a real gentleman or a true officer in the British empire. Still, a provincial American Dream – marry into money, get some land, get some slaves – was more than within reach. Had he been run over by the proverbial wagon in 1772, when the portrait to the right was painted by Charles Willson Peale, you’d have to say: This guy did all right for himself.

In the end, as we know, he did more than all right, and more than for just himself. There are three reason why that I’d like to point out as we shop, vacation, nap, or all those other good things a President’s Day holiday is for.

Courage. He was brave in the most literal sense—multiple accounts testify to his bravery under fire. But it took other forms, too. It’s easy enough to understand that leading an insurrection against the greatest empire in the world is not for the faint of heart, whether or not you happen to wield a gun. But I’m struck by some of the more subtle manifestations later in his life. For example, he pretty much knew that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom served in his cabinet and hated each other, were smarter than he was, and he knew that they knew it, too. That was all right with him, as long as they did good work. Which, as was true of many of the people who served under him, they did. There’s no doubt he was vain, and worried—you might say obsessed—about his reputation. But over and over again over the course of his career, whether as a young soldier or as an old lion who reluctantly lent his name to a new Constitution, he risked that reputation. He wasn’t quite flawless in this regard (for example, he kept his mouth shut about slavery for a very long time), but even these limits—and the limits of those limits—are in their own way impressive.

Patience. You can see it over and over again: In working his way out of debt and making Mount Vernon economically self-sufficient; in waiting out the British in defeat after defeat in 1776 before finally pouncing at Trenton that Christmas (or at Yorktown five years later); in enduring severe privation at places like Valley Forge along with his men; in simply enduring a Congress that acted in ways that he regarded as beneath contempt in keeping him supplied in war and carping about his diplomacy in peace. There is no doubt the man had a temper, and it was not one you’d particularly care to have focused on you. (God help a runaway slave.) But that iron discipline could also bend toward justice, as in the will he wrote that was implacably crafted to keep grasping family from denying his slaves their freedom.

Passion. This might seem like a joke. Him? That grim, seemingly unknowable visage in all those portraits, like the one we use to buy candy bars and cans of soda? But there’s finally no other way to understand a man who made the choices he did in transforming an abstraction into a nation. It wasn’t only courage and patience. You can see it in that blazing address he made to the officers who contemplated mutiny in the Newburgh Conspiracy – are you out of your minds, he asked in a white-hot fury, reducing them to tears – and in his desperation to leave the presidency before he died (no, I will not be King George, he said explicitly at Newburgh and implicitly and for the rest of his life). A red-blooded love coursed through the man’s arteries.

He wasn’t a saint. He was a man. A great man. If we lack the imagination to see that, to feel that, then we no longer deserve the freedom he made possible. This is a recurring fear in the tributes. And, alas, a justified one.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Washington. And thank you.