Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

In Praise of George Washington

I had hoped to post this essay on Presidents' Day, but it got crowded out by other activities. Better late than never, I suppose.

The other day a friend was showing me some of the new golden dollar coins. You will recall that the silver-colored Susan B. Anthony coins never caut on, nor did their successors, the gold-colored Sacagawea coins. Some people blame this on the fact that they depicted women. I blame it on the fact that they were competing with -- and losing to -- $1 bills. We won't have a successful $1 coin in this country until the government retires that denomination, and all the vending machines and parking meters and laundromats start accepting the coins out of necessity.

This logic has not proved persuasive to the US Treasury, which is trying for a 3rd time to find the magic formula for acceptance. Building on the success of the state-quarter program, they have started to issue $1 coins with the likenesses of all the presidents, in order, starting this year with George Washington.

They have made a few other improvements as well. To keep the design clean, they've moved a lot of the minor stuff to the edge of the coin. Thus the US's real motto "E Pluribus Unum", its fake mccarthyite motto "In God We Trust", the year of minting, and the initial letter of the mint city all appear around the outer edge of the coin, where you would normally expect to find milling.

Aside: Centuries ago, when the value of a coin was closely related to the value of the metal in it, the unscrupulous would use a sharp, sturdy blade to shave away some of the metal around the circumference. Do this often enuf, and you eventually have a little pile of valuable metal shavings that can be melted down for their intrinsic value, thereby turning a tidy profit on nothing more than having had a lot of coins pass thru your possession. To foil this practice, mints began scribing tiny vertical lines -- called "milling" -- on the edges of coins, so a person could tell at a glance whether it had been shaved. (The modern US penny and nickel don't have milling, because nobody is dumb enuf to try to shave them for the value of their copper and nickel, but all the others do.)

The best improvement on the new $1 coin is one that will probably go totally unappreciated by US citizens: It contains a digit. Yes, a real number, the only US coin to have one. (Dig into your pocket, pull out a handful of change, and imagine you're a tourist from, say, the Czech Republic trying to figure out which coin is worth how much. And don't expect to be able to tell based on their size, either.)

Anyway, all of the foregoing is merely a sidelight to the real thing I'd like to write about today. When my friend showed me that $1 coin, my first reaction was to remark on how grumpy George Washington looked. And that's a shame, because it's going to color the impressions a lot of Americans will hold about him.

We stand in serious danger of taking George Washington for granted. And we should not.

Yes, it sometimes seems as if half of America is named for him: our capital city, a state, a county in each state, a big bridge in New York, a giant phallic symbol in DC, a university, and more. His face appears on both a coin (the quarter) and a bill (the 1) as well as Mount Rushmore and half the grade-school classrooms in America.

But this very ubiquity makes him seem common and ordinary -- part of the background noise, like cicadas on a summer day, easy to tune out. And there's always the nagging suspicion that this universality was not due to any innate qualities but simply due to the accident that somebody had to be 1st, and he was it.

I will shortly get to listing some of Washington's actual virtues and accomplishments, but let me start by pointing out the degree of the esteem accorded to him by his contemporaries. On any number of occasions, the people who were assembling our nation from disparate components, dueling philosophies, and giant egos had occasion to choose from among themselves someone whose stature commanded the kind of respect that could ensure real discussion (instead of haggling and posturing) and inspire people to put duty above privilege or personality.

There were many worthy candidates for leadership positions. A roster of them is rather staggering. These weren't just a few stars, not even a major constellation -- this was a galaxy of immensely competent, intelligent, talented, and accomplished individuals: Richard Henry Lee, George Mason, Samuel Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, Thomas Paine, John Jay, Edmund Randolph, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson.

Yet, of all of these, who was picked as president of the Constitutional Convention? George Washington. Unanimously. And whom did the Electoral College pick as 1st president of the United States? George Washington. Unanimously. And, after his 1st term of office was up, and he'd had to make the sort of hard decisions that were pretty much guaranteed to piss at least some people off, whom did the Electoral College pick to succeed him? George Washington. Unanimously.

Not for nothing did Henry Lee eulogize him at his funeral as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Washington was a physically imposing man -- a sturdy, strapping 188 cm (6'2") tall in an era when people were shorter than today. His early life as a surveyor in Virginia and soldier on the western frontier reinforced his genetics with well honed muscle.

In 1755's Battle of the Monongohela on the western frontier, on a day that was pretty much a disaster for the British regulars and the Virginia colonials serving with them, Washington had 2 horses shot out from under him and had 4 bullets pass thru his coat. Yet, unharmed, he rallied the troops and organized an orderly retreat. His reputation was well underway and well earned.

As the commanding general of American forces in the Revolutionary War, he didn't just send his soldiers into battle, he led them -- at Boston, at Valley Forge, crossing the Delaware, and finally at Yorktown. Even as president, when he could have sent someone else to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, he rode at the head of the troops. Small wonder that he inspired fanatical loyalty among those who served under him. At the end of the Revolutionary War, as he resigned his commission to return to the life of a gentleman farmer in Virginia, many of his officers wept openly.

He could have been king. Offended at the very idea that a war fought to found a republic should result in a monarchy, he emphatically refused.

But, when the Articles of Confederation proved unequal to the task of governing the wild new land, George Washington was willing to lead it in a different manner. He left his life of relative ease on his Virginia plantation in Mount Vernon to once again answer the call of duty. He presided over the Constitutional Convention and served 2 terms as president. Ever vigilant against the merest hint of monarchy, the only honorific he felt appropriate for the position was the lowest-common-denominator "Mr. President".

During his tenure, he created the federal government essentially from scratch.

He named to his cabinet individuals who were highly competent in their own fields -- Hamilton at Treasury, Jefferson at State, Randolph as attorney general, Jay as Chief Justice -- despite the fact that many of them were political rivals and really didn't like each other very much. But they were willing to work together under Washington. Who would dare not to?

Under his administration, the United States engaged in financial responsibility. It could have repudiated the war debt, which had been authorized by 2 different pre-Constitutional governments. He did not. To him it was a debt not only of money but of honor. He and Hamilton saw to it that the money issued by the United States was worth what it claimed to be, no small matter for a newborn nation.

Under Washington's guidance, the original 13 colonies gave up their land claims beyond the Alleghenies. During his administration, 2 of those territories -- Kentucky and Tennessee -- became states in their own rights, setting a pattern that would eventually raise the number of states from the original 13 to the current 50.

He regularized relations with England, our former colonial masters, and oversaw the openings of diplomatic relations with many other countries, as America took its place among the community of nations.

Many other precedents Washington set then are still with us today. Foremost among them was the idea that one should not hold onto power too long. Just as he had resigned his generalship after the war was won, so too did he call it quits after the government was well launched, at the end of his 2nd term. He was then only 65.

His farewell address (actually a letter, not a speech) spoke forcefully in favor of national unity, of putting patriotism above regionalism or political differences. He reinforced the idea that the US should be a nation of laws, not men. Spend prudently, he cautioned, and do not abuse national credit, but always be willing to spend adequately to prepare for danger. "Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all." But, he added, beware of foreign entanglements. Don't choose sides in the wars and disputes of Europe.

Washington was not perfect. He had his failings. He was, like most of his contemporary founders, a slave owner. As president, he could have vetoed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, but he signed it. He wasn't a particularly eloquent speaker or writer, tho everybody listened when he had something to say. As a general, he didn't win every battle he chose to fight. Himself irreligious, he thot that religion among the common people was a boon to morality, which made him a bit hypocritical on that point. But these are quibbles.

George Washington died at Mount Vernon in 1799, after contracting pneumonia from riding around all day in the rain, inspecting his farms. Efforts to save him by leeching 5 pints of blood from him proved fruitless. He was 67.

Since then, 41 other native-born white men have held his office, and many among them -- Lincoln, the Roosevelts, Jefferson, Jackson -- have been suggested as candidates for being the best president ever. These are, after all, people who have risen to the top job in a dynamic country full of enormously energetic and competent people.

But I think a closer examination of each of their claims to fame will show that they're mainly based on living out the ideals that Washington himself had exemplified and set as national standards. They may have been good copies, but there was only one original.

There was only one George Washington.


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