Most do not realize that when the Southern States declared their independence from the United States by seceding from the then constituted union they took as their model of political propriety George Washington and expressed this by designing their seal as, “a device representing an equestrian portrait of Washington (after the statue which surmounts his monument in the capitol square at Richmond), surrounded with a wreath, composed of the principal agricultural products of the Confederacy, and having around its margin the words: ‘Confederate States of America, 22n February, 1862,’ with the motto, ‘Deo vindice.’”
“The equestrian statue of Washington has been selected in deference to the current popular sentiment. The equestrian figure impressed on our seal will be regarded by those skilled in glyptics as to a certain extent indicative of our origin. It is a most remarkable fact that an equestrian figure constituted the seal of Great Britain from the time of Edward the Confessor down to the reign of George III, except during the short interval of the protectorate of Cromwell, when the trial of the King was substituted for the man on horseback. Even Cromwell retained the equestrian figure on the seal of Scotland, but he characteristically mounted himself on the horse. In the reign of William and Mary the seal bore the impress of the king and queen both mounted on horseback.
“Washington has been selected as the emblem for our shield, as a type of our ancestors, in his character of princeps majorum. In addition to this, the equestrian figure is consecrated in the hearts of our own people by the local circumstance that on the gloomy and stormy 22d of February, 1862, our permanent government was set in motion by the inauguration of President Davis under the shadow of the statue of Washington.
By the end of the war all of failing of Jefferson Davis would have become manifest and all of the failings of government by articles of confederation would have become as evident as they were by 1787 while all of the costs of the victory by Lincoln and his Jacobite radical republicans would be a long time in the paying. Fortunately for what was left of the Republic a new man on horseback emerged from the conflict. Robert E. Lee who embodied the principles and virtues – and more than a few of the failings – of Washington and who, through institutions like Washington and Lee University, would help preserve those republican virtues necessary to a free society.
Brookhiser has written an excellent biography and read in tandem with one of the better biographies of Robert E. Lee it is only the rules of civility that tempers action and saves the current crop from the noose they so richly deserve. Perhaps someday Lee will be found on the seal of a free nation.
Founding father : rediscovering George Washington New York : Free Press, c 1996 Richard Brookhiser Presidents United States Biography, Washington, George, 1732-1799 Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 230 p. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. Be sure and read the extended description at our head listing. VG/VG
For much of our country’s history, George Washington was treated as something of a demigod. Early biographers like Parson Weems and Chief Justice John Marshall, however different their styles and scholarly standards, wrote in a spirit of patriotic reverence and described a man seemingly without flaw. Today, by contrast, few Americans would mistake Washington for a divinity. Revisionist historians have given us a figure who is all too human — a greedy land speculator, a mediocre general, a suggestible politician.
But flagging respect for our first President has a deeper cause than revisionism. As Richard Brookhiser argues in Founding Father, the trouble is that we now tend to take American nationhood for granted, seeing it as an inevitable step in the march of this or that historical trend — democracy or imperialism, Enlightenment or patriarchy. Along the way, we have lost sight of the fact that “ideas require men to bring them to earth.”
In attempting to restore one great man to his proper historical place, Brookhiser does not mean to revive the Washington cult of the 19th century. Nor does he mean to reconstruct and defend every important decision of Washington’s career. Rather, in this slender volume, he offers a “moral biography” of the first President: an analysis of the extraordinary but altogether human traits that made him so indispensable to the early republic.
The first part of Founding Father is taken up by historical narrative. Brookhiser reminds us that Washington personally dominated American public life for nearly a quarter-century, a longer period than any other figure in our history. As Commander of the Continental Army from 1775 until peace with Britain was concluded in 1783, as president of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, and as chief executive from 1789 to 1797, he oversaw the long struggle from independence to nationhood. Entering the political realm as a celebrated soldier, he left as the most admired of civilians — no mean feat in an age equally capable of producing an autocrat like Bonaparte.
Washington’s awareness of his own problematic role in establishing a republican political order provides the central theme of Brookhiser’s biographical sketch. Time and again, Washington turned away from opportunities for personal aggrandizement to demonstrate his devotion to republican rule. The episodes are familiar but worth rehearing: his resignation of command immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Paris; his rebukes to those who whispered to him suggestively of monarchy; his reluctance to reenter public life after his military career; and, finally, his insistence on leaving the presidency after his second term. “Washington’s last service to his country,” Brookhiser rightly observes, “was to stop serving.”
What, then, was the character of the man behind these deeds? This question lies at the heart of Founding Father, and Brookhiser begins to answer it in an unusual but illuminating way: he describes the raw elements with which nature endowed Washington — most particularly, great physical stature and an irascible temper. Washington displayed the former to striking effect in such activities as riding and dancing; the latter he directed into the channels of courage and spirited determination. By means of both, he learned how to make the “sensual impact” necessary to lead.
As for Washington’s “second” nature — the habits and precepts that guided his conduct — Brookhiser properly rejects the notion, favored by many students of the founding era, that he was some kind of self-styled Roman throwback, a Cato in cocked hat and breeches. Washington no doubt did draw inspiration from the public-spiritedness and self-control of the ancients, but their virtues were too “inhumane” to be his standard. A liberal republic required an ethic of a different sort.
Washington found this ethic, Brookhiser plausibly claims, in the “Rules of Civility,” a long set of principles that for years instructed English schoolboys. Some of these rules, which Washington copied out in his own hand as a young man, have not aged well: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, lice, ticks, etc., in the sight of others”; “Spit not in the fire.” But many more reflect the timeless demands of social intercourse in a regime based on the idea of political equality: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present”; “Artificers and persons of low degree” should be treated “with affability and courtesy, without arrogance.” For Washington, Brookhiser notes, politeness was “the first form of politics.”
Brookhiser does not shrink from examining some of the more troubling aspects of Washington’s character and principles. He finds nothing objectionable, for example, in Washington’s seeming obsession with reputation and role-playing. If we today “worry about our authenticity — about whether our presentation reflects who we ‘really’ are” — 18th-century Americans attended more to the outside story and were less avid to drive putty knives between the outer and inner man. Every man had a character to maintain.
Yet is concentration on the “outside story,” on the opinions of others, always so admirable a quality in a leader, even a democratic one? One senses a forerunner of today’s political spin control in Washington’s query to an adviser shortly before the Constitutional Convention: “[I]nform me confidentially what the public expectation is on this head, that is, whether I will, or ought to be there.”
A similar concern for popular standing can be seen at other key points in Washington’s career, from his earliest days of command in the French and Indian War to his acceptance of the presidency. In the end, of course, Washington usually did what he considered right rather than what was sure to win applause. But the tension between the two might have been explored more fully, especially as it sheds light on the distressing spectacle of our own politics, in which polling and pandering have been elevated to the status, respectively, of science and art.
Brookhiser’s “moral biography” is too easy on Washington’s parsimonious view of religion. Though a firm advocate of freedom of conscience, Washington had difficulty describing an affirmative role for religion in American life. He neither inspired personal religious devotion in others nor successfully attached the national cause to some transcendent purpose. Instead, one often detects in him the cold instrumentalism of the Enlightenment, as in the following passage from the Farewell Address:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them.
Though Brookhiser finds room to praise the ways in which Washington invoked the Bible and religious belief, a more pointed judgment has been offered by the scholar Harry V. Jaffa: “[T]here is no trace of reverence in Washington’s discussion of the need for reverence; the sacred is treated [by him] as a necessity of the profane.”
The book closes with Brookhiser’s meditation on Washington’s status as “the father” of our country. Because Americans today are no longer sure what real fathers do, we are supposedly unable to accept the notion of a political father: “This may be the deepest source of our distance from him — the resentment and puzzlement that come from being let go.” Washington, by contrast, conferred a great gift on his political progeny precisely by allowing himself “to let go,” to be “taken into the country’s mind —internalized as an object.”
Thankfully, this is not Brookhiser’s final word on Washington as father. Returning to his Plutarchan model, he urges us to emulate our first President — to curb and direct our passions, to treat our fellow citizens with civility and respect, and, above all, to perform the duties of free government no less energetically than we claim its rights. While others have busied themselves exposing and deconstructing Washington, and ascribing every conceivable injustice to him and his contemporaries, it is truly refreshing to be reminded what the life of our founding father still has to teach us.