Washington's post

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 30

The Presidency was made for George Washington. Owen Dudley Edwards looks at how he shaped the role for future generations

George Washington (1732-1799) would have been bewildered if it had ever been prophesied to him that some Americans would honor him posthumously by eating cherry-pie on his birthday. The tradition originates in homage to the story that as a little boy Washington cut down his father's favorite cherry-tree before confessing with the immortal words, "I cannot tell a lie ..."

Except it never happened. The story was faked by the writer, Mason Weems, tarting up a new edition of an old biography to cash in after the President's death. The widespread dissemination of the story is a lesson to historians of the pitfalls that lie in wait for those who don't do their research. Help is at hand, however; the sale, Treasures from The Caren Archive II, at Bonhams New York in April, allows readers the opportunity to see at first-hand the documents that tell the formative history of the United States, and the events that have shaped the role of President.

From Washington's standpoint the cherry- tree story was ridiculous. As a soldier who won his campaigns by deceiving his enemies as to his strategy and tactics, he knew victory often depended on lying, and as a politician he knew it even better.

The story won fame because of Americans' hunger to know more about the life of the Virginia farmer who first liberated and then ruled the 13 former British colonies of the Atlantic seaboard.

What gained the admiration of the world for Washington was that thrice he commanded the armies of the United States, and thrice resigned his command when the work was done, in stark contrast to victorious generals throughout history from Caesar to Cromwell.

Because Washington did not use his generalship to grab political power, he had immense moral authority. It helped him and his allies to win ratification for a Constitution, greatly strengthening the central government.

His country saw him as a paternal symbol of patriotism. He was famously eulogized by Henry Lee as 'First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of his Countrymen' – a first printing of the eulogy is also included in the sale. But Washington's was the realistic patriotism of a military man not the lofty idealism of some of his fellow revolutionaries.

If Washington had not made a success of his Presidency he would have had no successors. What was known of the actual framing of Article II of the Constitution was a consistent reminder to future Presidential candidates that Washington himself was the specification for the office. His obvious identity as a military hero was honored down the centuries by the electors' choice of other warriors, real or presumed: General Andrew Jackson (hero of War of 1812) in 1828 and 1832, General Zachary Taylor (Mexican War 1846-48) in 1848, General Ulysses Grant (Civil War 1861-65) in 1868 and 1872, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (Spanish-American War of 1898) in 1904, General Dwight Eisenhower (Second World War 1941-45) in 1952 and 1956, PT boat Commander John Kennedy (ditto) in 1960: Kennedy really was a war hero, but in most other cases status as general sufficed.

Figures such as Grant and Eisenhower became surrogates for the war dead whom they had commanded. Although childless (so far as is known) Washington seems to have inspired truly filial responses from very different people such as Alexander Hamilton, the Marquis de Lafayette and the future Chief Justice John Marshall.

Washington reigned with natural dignity. It's not a quality singled out by commentators, but it is important since the President does the work of both king/queen and prime minister. The search for appropriate Presidential candidates could vary between those expected to preside over programs and those anxious to pursue them.

Washington cultivated the impression of leaving programs of action in the hands of his cabinet officers, save when he saw mutual disagreements. He was naturally more hostile to Revolutionary France than was his Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson in his First Inaugural Address as President (1801) conspicuously borrowed the ideology of the Farewell Address to reject 'entangling alliances'.

Washington ruled a revolutionary generation of first-class intellectuals, but he himself claimed no more than common sense. A few of his successors were much more brilliant than he, but in general Presidents find it well to avoid unduly intellectual images.

Owen Dudley Edwards is an Irish historian and former Reader in Commonwealth and American History at the University of Edinburgh.

Washington times

George Washington was born on 22 February 1732 on the estate of his father, a Virginia landowner. The boy became a skilled surveyor and map-maker. In 1753, Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie sent him to discourage French incursions in frontier Ohio. The resultant Journals of Major George Washington (1754), which were published in the Maryland Gazette, are to be sold as part of the Treasures from The Caren Archive II auction at Bonhams in April. The dispatches report French ambitions and harsh terrain, and won Washington celebrity in Britain and the American colonies.

Elected to the Virginia legislature (1759), and having had war experience of British military inefficiency, Washington shared the widespread resentment of British governmental pretensions.

On 15 June 1775, the Continental Congress chose Washington as general of its forces at war against Parliament and (after 4 July 1776) King George III. His hardest challenge was to maintain morale with vacillating support from the new, and not altogether united, states, notably in near-starvation conditions in winter 1777-78. The alliance with the French from 1778 and Washington's masterly troop deployment culminated in the secret rapid march from the Hudson River to Chesapeake Bay, forcing the surrender of General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781.

Retiring to his estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia, after Britain had conceded US independence, Washington noted that states' individual self-interest threatened US security in the event of a British return to war.

His friends and admirers won reluctant Congressional agreement to a Convention drafting a new Constitution over whose delegates Washington presided, and its Article II on the Presidency was drawn up with Washington as the prototype.

After the Constitution's ratification by the states, Washington was elected President and re-elected for a second term, thus serving 1789-97. He supported his Secretary of the Treasury and protégé, the brilliant Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), in establishing national fiscal policy honoring credit obligations at par, establishing a national bank, introducing national excise tax and evangelizing governmental encouragement of manufactures.

Washington successfully commanded his troops against local rebellion, against the excise tax (the only US President to command his armies in the field), and pardoned rebel leaders sentenced to death. In foreign policy, he maintained US neutrality in the European wars of the French Revolution, carried ratification of the unpopular treaty of 1794 ensuring Britain's fulfillment of its territorial obligations under post-war agreement, and on 17 September 1796, gave his Farewell Address warning against 'entangling' alliances with other powers.

He refused a third term in the Presidency, but when threatened with war against France in 1798, John Adams, his successor as President, made him Commander-in-Chief once more, from which position he retired after the danger had receded. He died at Mount Vernon on 14 December 1799.

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