August 26, 2007

“If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Said King George III about George Washington:
The actual resignation of his command, having made peace between the civil and military powers of the new country -- and, in an emotional ceremony, bidden farewell to his officers on December 4, 1783 -- took place in Annapolis, Maryland, on December 23, when he formally handed back to Congress his commission as commander in chief, which they had given him in June 1775. He said he would never again hold public office. He had his horse waiting at the door, and he took the road to Mount Vernon the next day.

No one who knew Washington was surprised. Everyone else, in varying degrees, was astonished at this singular failure of the corruption of power to work. And, indeed, it was a rare moment in history. In London, George III qustioned the American-born painter Benjamin West what Washington would do now he had won the war. "Oh," said West, "they say he will return to his farm." "If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."
This is from Paul Johnson's book about George Washington, which I was listening to today in audiobook form as I walked throught lower Manhattan. That last line made me break down and cry as I crossed Lafayette Street.


IgnatzEsq said...

He may have been the greatest man in the world, but he still looks odd when posed as a greek god .

America does do things differently than other Countries, and we tend to take it for granted. I remember a lecturer pointing out how hard it was to explain to different countries that when Nixon was forced out of office, not a single US soldier left their post to defend him.

Meade said...

Can't say I broke down but, upon reading that, I did choke up a bit myself. Who wouldn't? Even a dilettantish student of American history such as I can't help but be moved by the peaceful, rational, orderly transfer of executive power in this nation every four or eight years. It's surprisingly wonderfully miraculous really.

Gahrie said...

Not even most Political Scientists realize how great a debt we owe to the Father of our country.

How different would the world have been if a man such as Hamilton (despite how much I like him) or Burr had been in Washington's position.

Mortimer Brezny said...

Damn. I live in lower Manhattan. I should have gone outside today.

Trooper York said...

Try Fraunces Tavern on Board and is the Tavern where Washington said farewell to his troops...there is a great museum was bombed in the fifties by the FALN...Mick Brien who is the general manager is a good friend of has excellent old style american cuisne..if you love american history, you will love Fraunces Tavern

George M. Spencer said...

Another great book about the great man is Washington's Crossing by David Hackett Fischer.

Here are two choice bits from the book:

First, a poem composed in his honor:

By a Young Lady
Witness, ye sons of tyrant’s black womb,
And see his Excellence victorious come!
Serene, majestic, see he gains the field!
His heart is tender, while his arms are steel’d.
Intent on virtue, and her cause so fair,
Now treats his captive with a parent’s care!
Greatness of soul is ev’ry action shows,
Thus virtue from celestial bounty flows,
Our George, by heaven, destin’d to command,
Now strikes the British yoke with prosp’rous hand.

And, second, Fischer's conclusion that American Way of Fighting arose out of Washington's own approach:

* Civilian control over the military. Military men should direct military affairs, subject to oversight by civilian leaders.
* Generals expected to be bold, active, quick, and decisive. Public wants to get war done quickly, so it can get on with the ordinary business of life.
* Prudence regarding the cost of operations in human life
* Combining boldness with prudence—large gains with small costs
* Fixed strategic purposes, flexible operational means
* Controlling the initiative and tempo in war
* Speed
* Concentrating forces. Using firepower to magnify the impact of small forces.
* Good intelligence, using an open system with autonomous actors
* Humanity towards prisoners.

John Stodder said...

I can't help but be moved by the peaceful, rational, orderly transfer of executive power in this nation every four or eight years. It's surprisingly wonderfully miraculous really.

We shouldn't take it for granted. Already, a writer representing himself as part of significant faction in this country is calling for a military coup. (Although, characteristically, the writer doesn't want anyone to call it a military coup. Bad for the narrative, doncha know.)

PatCA said...

We have lost sight of that conception of greatness, haven't we? Yet we know it when we hear of it, and discover how deeply we yearn for it.

No matter what the revisionists of the world say to the contrary, the founders were magnificent. I read McCullough's book on GW but he didn't go that far into the future.

Will fate and the times give us another?

Beldar said...

I liked you already, Professor A. But I like you a little better after reading this post. Thank you for sharing a vulnerable moment.

rcocean said...

I have a different take on it. What amazes me about Washington is that despite being a fairly rich man, who loved being at Mt. Vernon, he joined a fairly risking venture called the Revolution in 1775. As a very wealthy man his natural allegiance and self-interest lay with the crown.

But he spent 8 years as head of the continental army and 8 years as President. None of it was well paid, all of it was hard work, and the army years were especially thankless and dangerous.

He didn't do it for love of Power, since the USA was a small republic but out of love of country.

I also find it amazing that everyone including great men like Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison all accepted Washington's leadership.

reader_iam said...

And finally, though I would separate Washington's Birthday from Lincoln's, here's one of the many stories Lincoln famously told to entertain his fellow lawyers on the long nights riding the circuit on the Illinois frontier:

One of the leaders of the American Revolution -- I forget now who it was, Ethan Allen, perhaps -- visited England after the war. His host entertained him comfortably, but was the sort of fellow who constantly disparaged America and Americans generally (no, it didn't start with Bush), and never could get over the fact we had beaten them in the war. To amuse himself and to twit his American guest, the host hung a print of George Washington on the wall of his outhouse. It had been there for a few days, and the host knew the American must have seen it, but he had said nothing. Finally overcome by curiosity, the host asked his guest what he thought of the picture of Washington.

"It is most appropriately hung," the American replied. "Nothing ever made the British shit like the sight of George Washington."

From a piece Callimachus (at whose blog I'm still a permanent guest, though I blog rarely) wrote called Our George*** a while back.

Callimachus--a pseudonymous blogger who's written many things about American history, and has had magazine articles and even a couple of books or so published on related topics--has done numerous posts relating to history and our Founders, some of which can be found by going to Done With Mirrors and looking not too far down the right sidebar for the section called "On The Founders."

***Please note that a chunk of this particular post, starting at ""Parson Weems and his biography of George Washington loom large..." and ending just before the excerpt I italicized above, was originally written as part of another related one.

Added, for rcocean, another excerpt from the first link above (Our George): When you read the accounts of him written by his intimate circle during the Revolution, you see the American man -- vain, hard-driving, hard-cussing, clever in a farmer's ways.

But the paragraph in which that appears is what makes it interesting, and is what made your comment interesting to me.

Maxine Weiss said...

Althouse broke down and cried, because she's unhappy with her location. Crying at one thing, when it's something else that's the real problem.

Sloanasaurus said...

Even better is the fact that despite the sometimes bitter differences between our two parties, they tend to hold the same people (the founders) as their source of inspiration.

This country will have a real problem when one party deviates and starts looking to Marx or someone else as the legacy to emulate. There are constant ongoing attempts to discredit the founders,; e.g., such as exclusively concentrating on their slave holding rather than what they are known for. Nevertheless these attemps have failed (so far at least).

The Romans lost their connection with their great Republican leaders. For example, Scipio Africanus in 202 BC refused to become dictator for life (thus following the legacy of Cincinnatus) after defeating Hannibal, the scourge of Rome. By Caesars time, however, Cincinnatus was thought a fool and conveniently forgotten.

blake said...


C'mon, now, you're sharper than that. She's not in New York at all. This is like one of them moon-landing dealies, all sound stage and faked photos.

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hdhouse said...

Sloanasaurus said...
"This country will have a real problem when one party deviates and starts looking to Marx or someone else as the legacy to emulate. There are constant ongoing attempts to discredit the founders.."

Which Marx did you have in mind Sloanasaurus? Personally I liked Harpo for his musicianship but Chico broke me up. Zeppo kinda reminds me of my uncle. Groucho was just a little too over the top of those? Which one do you like?

or is it the "someone else" you write about? Don't worry, though as far off base as the GOP often goes in ascribing founding father wisdom the chances of your party following the dictates of Ish Kabibble are pretty remote.

MDIJim said...

Time for a good word concerning John McCain. He is not an Eisenhower or a Washington. Early on he had that potential; but he became the darling of the media and loved it. He was understandably pissed about Bush's despicable tactics in South Carolina, and turned to the media for solace. He even granted them their wish to have a monopoly on political discourse during elections. Because of his understanding that we must win Bush's ill-advised and thoroughly mismanaged war in Iraq, I hope, I think, he is a changed man now and ready to be a president in the mold of Washington and Eisenhower.

Gahrie said...


Nice reference to Cincinnatus. I couldn't tell however if you were aware that Washington's soldiers formed a Society of the Cincinnati, and Washington served as their first leader (President General)

It is generally accepted however that they encouraged Washington to accept the title of King.

KCFleming said...

When I tell my son amazing stories about America's past like the one you relate here, he asks, "Why don't they teach us that stuff in school?"

All I can say is, "I don't know," because the longer answer is too depressing.

There are many such passages in Paul Johnson's books. I never felt I understood history at all until reading his work. I'll have to read this biography, to be sure.

Laura Reynolds said...

"If he does that," said the king, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

Well he really was. No one from that point forward could reasonably argue with that, and as time has passed, its impossible.

Sloanasaurus said...

Interesting point about Ike Theo, although we should remember that Ike shared fame for WWII with others such as McCarthur or Patton - just as Grant shared fame with Sherman.

Washington didn't share heoric status with anyone from the Revolution. Perhaps Benedict Arnold could have been, but we all know what happened to ol' Ben.

Sloanasaurus said...

or is it the "someone else" you write about?

Are you blind hd? There are legions of idiots from both the right and left who don't believe in America or its founders. Communists are a good start. As another poster stated above, some of these idiots have found their way into our education system.

Wade Garrett said...

Was that the first time you'd heard that quotation from George III? My high school and college american history professors both mentioned it - its pretty widely known.

PatCA said...

You must have seen the post from Kos about reclaiming Marx as our inspiration?

Cedarford said...

A big problem is that somehow, the nation decided that Washington should be honored at the peak of his prominence, an old guy with bouts of malaria, bad gum and jaw disease in a powdered wig who had already outlived many of his contempories.

The Gilbert Stuart portrait does a disservice to the formidable, handsome, very able man Washington was. He was made a Master Mason at only 21. His reputation as a fearless, very good military commander acknowledged by the Brits in the French Indian Wars. He was considered handsome when he was a 44-year old as he commanded the Continental Army 20 years before.

The Stuart painting should go to the basement of the Smithsonian where it belongs and be replaced by images of Washington at his peak.

The ruddy/auburn-haired man with large blue eyes who stood 7 inches higher than the average man of the day - who was considered "of the appearance of a diety and of a most pleasing way about him" - despite slight pocking from smallpox at 19, in appearance, in the French&Indian War time by Brit Wives who wrote of meeting him at officer dances.

More than anyone in our history, George Washington could benefit from a makeover and less attention on his military victories and more on his personal qualities.

(In an era when the "Holy Founders" savaged one another in the press and in letters, when fools were called fools and not given self-esteem trophies - that Washington was held in such tremendous universal regard, goes to his character and abilities. (and some would say his being non-partisan) Of the "Holy Founders", he was the only major one who had slaves to order their emancipation after he and his wife passed away.

Now our schoolkids spend more time learning about a martyred civil rights leader, a plagarist, communist sympathizer and drunken women-beater who is the only person now honored with a National Holiday -than learning of Washington or Lincoln.

Go figure!

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