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‘First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen’

The title of this post is a quote by Light Horse Harry Lee [father of Robert E. Lee] and a Revolutionary War hero that was offered in Resolutions presented to the United States’ House of Representatives, on the Death of Washington, December, 1799. Of course he was also the man who called Washington, “that dark, designing, sordid, ambitious, vain, proud, arrogant, and vindictive knave.” The one thing certain about Washington is that he was as complex as any politician and it is finally only the fact that he was an officer and a gentleman long before he was a politician that allowed him to rise to the rank of statesman.

The problem with Furstenberg’s book is that he apparently takes Parson Weems at face value and tries to substitute pious editorials for the facts. There are texts full of grand ideas like the Declaration of Independence, although nobody seems to pay any attention to the litany of villanies of the state contained therein, and then there are practical documents of state like the Constitution [sans amendments] that spell out very specifically what the relationship of the state and federal government will be.

It is instructive to realize that George Washington DID NOT sign the Declaration of Independence [he was not a member of the congress considering the document] but he was instrumental in the drafting, ratification and implementation of the Constitution. H. L. Mencken in Pater Patria gives us a succinct view of one of the greatest founders and if its seems irreverent that does not detract from its accuracy.

If George Washington were alive today, what a shining mark he would be for the whole camorra of uplifters, forward-lookers and professional patriots! He was the Rockefeller of his time, the richest man in the United States, a promoter of stock companies, a land-grabber, an exploiter of mines and timber. He was a bitter opponent of foreign alliances, and denounced their evils in harsh, specific terms. He had a liking for all forthright and pugnacious men, and a contempt for lawyers, schoolmasters and all other such obscurantists. He was not pious. He drank whisky whenever he felt chilly, and kept a jug of it handy. He knew far more profanity than Scripture, and used and enjoyed it more. He had no belief in the infallible wisdom of the common people, but regarded them as inflammatory dolts, and tried to save the republic from them. He advocated no sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and doubted that such a panacea existed. He took no interest in the private morals of his neighbors.

Inhabiting These States today, George would be ineligible for any office of honor or profit. The Senate would never dare confirm him; the President would not think of nominating him. He would be on trial in all the yellow journals for belonging to the Invisible Government, the Hell Hounds of Plutocracy, the Money Power, the Interests. The Sherman Act would have him in its toils; he would be under indictment by every grand jury south of the Potomac; the triumphant prohibitionists of his native state would be denouncing him (he had a still at Mount Vernon) as a debaucher of youth, a recruiting officer for insane asylums, a poisoner of the home. The suffragettes would be on his trail, with sentinels posted all along the Accotink road. The initiators and referendors would be bawling for his blood. The young college men of the Nation and the New Republic would be lecturing him weekly. He would be used to scare children in Kansas and Arkansas. The chautauquas would shiver whenever his name was mentioned….

And what a chance there would be for that ambitious young district attorney who thought to shadow him on his peregrinations – and grab him under the Mann Act!

When the rhetorical flights of Jefferson landed it was the task of more grounded men to see to it that, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government…,” in the words of article four of the Constitution. Not an unlimited exercise of popular sovereignty – which they abhorred with the immediate example of the terrors of the French revolution all too apparent – and the idea of the consent of the governed was more of a driving force than any other.

Lenin used to say that whenever someone mentioned culture he reached for his revolver and we would do well to remember that when politicians – and historians – begin to speak about the “spirit” of the law or the “mystic chords of memory” you had better hold on to, “the right of a citizen of one State to pass through, or to reside in any other State, for purposes of trade, agriculture, professional pursuits, or otherwise; to claim the benefits of the writ of habeas corpus; to institute and maintain actions of any kind in the courts of the State; to take, hold and dispose of property, either real or personal; and an exemption from higher taxes or impositions than are paid by the other citizens of the State,” [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in unambiguous terms!] because somebody is getting ready to limit – or worse yet tax – them.

Washington was a great leader, in spite of all the faults enumerated by Mencken and maybe because of a select few of them, but he was not the plaster saint of Furstenberg who is last in accuracy, last in interpretation and last in the works on Washington that I would bother with.

In the name of the father : Washington’s legacy, slavery, and the making of a nation    New York : Penguin Press, 2006 Francois Furstenberg Slavery Political aspects United States History 18th century, Washington, George, 1732-1799 Influence Hardcover. 1st ed. and printing. 335 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. [247]-319) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

How did people in our country-North and South, East and West – come to share a remarkably durable and consistent common vision of what it meant to be an American in the first fifty years after the Revolution? How did the nation respond to the problem of slavery in a republic? In the Name of the Father immerses us in the rich, riotous world of what François Furstenberg calls civic texts, the patriotic words and images circulating through every corner of the country in newspapers and almanacs, books and primers, paintings and even the most homely of domestic ornaments. We see how the leaders of the founding generation became “the founding fathers,” how their words, especially George Washington’s, became America’s sacred scripture. And we see how the civic education they promoted is impossible to understand outside the context of America’s increasing religiosity.

In the Name of the Father is filled with vivid stories of American print culture, including a wonderful consideration of the first great American hack biographer cum bookseller, Parson Weems, author of the first blockbuster Washington biography. But François Furstenberg’s achievement is not limited to showing what all these civic texts were and how they infused Americans with a national spirit: how they created what Abraham Lincoln called “the mystic chords of memory.” He goes further to show how the process of defining the good citizen in America was complicated and compromised by the problem of slavery. Ultimately, we see how reconciling slavery and republican nationalism would have fateful consequences that haunt us still, in attitudes toward the socially powerless that persist in America to this day.


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