Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Man of the Millenium
This is a column I wrote in 2000. I'm reposting it in honor of Washington's birthday:
Making up "Top 10" lists or "Most Important" lists is fatuous beyond belief, but I'm no better than the next guy. As this millennium draws to a close, I've been thinking about who was the greatest person of the last 1,000 years.
And what an incredible cast of characters to choose from! Joan of Arc, William Shakespeare, Mahatma Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi, Isaac Newton, Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Leonardo DaVinci, Martin Luther King and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, to name just a few.
But for me, the choice is easy. There's one person whom I honor and revere him above all other humans, and I'd give anything if I could be like him: motivated solely by unselfish feelings of love, duty and honor. His name: George Washington.
You might find this a curious choice, because Washington has become a remote figure, somehow more distant from us than even his contemporaries like Franklin and Jefferson. For most people, he's just the guy with the pursed lips, who stares at us from the dollar bill.
But it wasn't so long ago that Washington was a very, very big deal, indeed. The mere mention of his name would bring tears to grown men's eyes (as it still does to mine). And generations of little kids grew up idolizing him, the way today's kids idolize Michael Jordan.
Jefferson and Franklin and the other Founding Fathers idolized him, too. These giants, who were anything but modest about their own abilities, looked up to Washington as the greatest of them all.
Jefferson, who opposed many of Washington's policies, still called him "in every sense of the words, a good, wise and great man." Franklin called him "my friend, and the friend of Mankind." And Light Horse Harry Lee, the father of Robert E. Lee, called him "first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen."
They chose him to lead the army. They chose him to preside over the Constitutional convention. They chose him to be the first president. They called him "Father of the Country," even in his own lifetime. They even named our nation's capital after him.
Why? Well, there were plenty of reasons to look up to him. (Literally. At 6-foot-2, he towered over all of them except Jefferson.)
First was his undeniable natural leadership. Some people have it and some people don't, and Washington had it in spades. How do else you think he kept that bedraggled little army of his together and defeated the greatest superpower in the world?
It was also a question of character. To state it baldly, they knew he was a better person than they were. That story about the cherry tree may be bogus, but its underlying message about Washington's honesty was true enough.
Jefferson and Hamilton were habitual womanizers. (Jefferson even slept with his slaves, which is closer to rape than consensual sex.) Franklin was a vindictive father who went out of his way to make sure that his son, William, who stayed loyal to Britain, rotted in jail for the duration of the war.
Washington, on the other hand, was a loving, faithful husband to Martha and a doting father to her two children, Jackie and Patsy, and (after Jackie and Patsy's untimely deaths) to Martha's grandchildren, Nelly and Washy, whom he brought up as his own.
And while Jefferson and the others were having fun playing armchair general while living in comfort and safety back in Philadelphia, Washington was freezing and bleeding with the troops on the out in the field.
After the war, while others schemed and doublecrossed and generally acted like the politicians they were, he was guided by only two principles: the public good and his private honor.
He was even kind to animals. Cruelty of any sort disgusted him, and he adored his two favorite dogs, whom he named "Truelove" and "Sweetlips." (Try imagining that guy on the dollar bill down on his hands and knees, letting some dog slobber all over his face while he coos, "Is this my little Sweetlips?")
And on the most important moral issue of the day — slavery — Washington still looks good. Yes, he had slaves. (Although he didn't buy them; they came with Martha in her dowry.) Moreover, he — alone among his contemporaries — freed his slaves in his will. He also set up trust funds for them, so they wouldn't be left high and dry after he was gone.
Nowadays, you hear a lot of historians trying to justify some of the Founding Fathers' slaveholding by saying they didn't know any better. But it's not true. The hypocrisy was apparent, even at the time. In London, Samuel Johnson, on being told about the Declaration of Independence, quipped, "Isn't it odd that the loudest yelps for freedom come from the drivers of Negroes?"
Washington knew better, too. And, typically, he put his convictions into practice.
• • •
But the main reason why Franklin, Jefferson and the rest respected him was because were pleasantly flabbergasted when he didn't turn out to be a tyrant. (And they weren't the only ones. Even his old nemesis, George III, when told that Washington had voluntarily given up command of the army, gasped in disbelief, "Why, he must be the greatest man in the world!")
These men, on both sides on the Atlantic, knew from their reading of history how easy it is for someone to start out as a liberator but end up as a despot.
Think of it: Every other conqueror in history — Alexander, Caesar, Cromwell, Napoleon, Mao — started out with good intentions but eventually succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force. (Or, if you're a Tolkien fan, they were seduced by the Ring of Power.)
But not Washington. He alone refused.
The crisis came right after the war. The soldiers had been fighting and dying without pay for six long years, trusting Congress' promise that they'd get their money when it was all over. But in February, 1983, the Congress reneged on that promise.
The same thing had happened about a hundred years before, during the English Civil War. That time, the army responded by marching on London and throwing out the parliament. And England was under the heel of a military dictatorship for the next 20 years.
There were a lot of senior officers in the American army who wanted to do the same thing. They hatched a plan to march on the capital at Philadelphia, arrest the Congress, and install Washington as a military dictator, if he was willing. If he wasn't willing, they were prepared to seize the government anyway — over his dead body, if necessary. And they called a secret meeting to put the final touches of the plot.
But Washington got wind of the meeting, and he surprised them all by crashing it. He walked up to the podium and politely asked for permission to address the meeting, knowing that they couldn't deny their old commander-in-chief this small favor.
He started reading them a letter he'd just received, but he didn't get past more than a word or two before he suddenly stopped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out something they'd never ever seen wear before: a pair of eyeglasses.
"Gentlemen," he said, "please permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray in the service of my country, but also blind."
Then, without another word, he slowly walked out the door. Those hardened war veterans dissolved in tears. The coup d'etat was over before it began. And the United States did not become a banana republic.
• • •
Washington continued giving up power, over and over again, for the rest of his life. After being unanimously elected twice to the presidency (the only man to do so), he turned down a third term that could easily have been his, preferring to set a precedent by arranging a peaceful transition to his successor. Despite all the power that kept gravitating toward him, there was never a man who lusted after power less.
I never understood that until I visited his home, Mount Vernon, which is something I urge you to do, too.
When I was studying American history in school, I'd read about people coming up to him and saying, "George, please head the army" or "George, please run the Constitutional convention" or "George, please be our first president."
And he'd always reply something along the lines of "Gee, fellas, I really hate to leave Mount Vernon, But if you insist, well, OK." And I'd cynically say to myself, "Who does this guy think he's kidding?"
But the instant I laid eyes on Mount Vernon, I knew he wasn't kidding at all. Mount Vernon is the most gorgeous place on Earth. Every time I visit (and I visit as often as I can), I'm filled with a glorious combination of exhilaration and serenity. If I lived there, wild horses couldn't to drag me away.
And the beauty is that it reflects Washington's personality so perfectly, right down to the key to the Bastille that hangs in the hallway — a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette.
Mount Vernon is refined, but it's not fancy. Unlike Monticello, which looks like the aristocrat's house that it is, Mount Vernon is a simple farmer's house, albeit a very elegant one.
But as much as he loved Mount Vernon, Washington loved his country more. During the war, a British frigate sailed up the Potomac, threatening every home along the river with its big guns. At Monticello, Jefferson, who was governor of Virginia at the time, hastily sent the ship's captain a sizable bribe to spare Monticello.
Washington was up North at the time, but his caretaker sent a couple of barrels of whiskey to the ship's captain to induce him to spare Mount Vernon, too. When Washington heard about it, he was furious. "Better it should have been burned to the ground," he wrote, "than that any tribute should be paid to the tyrant!"
Washington died on Dec. 14, 1799, exactly 200 years ago this coming Tuesday. He'd caught a bad cold the day before, and he woke up in the middle of the night with difficulty breathing. Typically, he wouldn't let Martha get up and fetch the doctor, because he didn't want her to risk a chill getting out of bed.
The next day the doctor arrived and made matters worse. In those days, the main remedies were bleeding and enemas, both of which only served to further weaken the patient. He was slowly suffocating to death, and the doctors informed him that the end of near.
"'Tis well," said Washington. "I die hard, but I am not afraid to go." In a few minutes he was gone.
After his death, Mount Vernon gradually deteriorated over the next 70 or 80 years until it was reduced to a truly dilapidated state. But it was saved from ruin in the nick of time by women — namely, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which was founded shortly before the Civil War by a patriot named Anne Pamela Cunningham.
They bought Mount Vernon from Washington's heirs and set about restoring it. Today, it looks just the way it was when Washington lived there, including his granddaughter Nelly's harpsichord, which is in the same spot in the parlor where it was when she played for her doting "Grandpapa" every night after dinner. It's all subsidized by contributions from the public; not a penny of taxes goes into its upkeep.
Next week, Mount Vernon will observe the anniversary of the great man's death by recreating all the important events, including a full restaging of his funeral procession, complete with rituals of Washington's Masonic lodge. It may sound macabre, but how I wish I could be there!
• • •
We have much to be grateful to Washington for. But perhaps the most important is the example he set for the rest of us to live up to.
And we can do it, too. Washington was a human being, no different from you and me. He was no superhero or saint. What he did, we can do. All it takes is the will power.
Don't believe me? Here's exhibit A: another man, still living, who in all the important details could be Washington reincarnate.
He has the same dignified manner — the same, for want of a better word, leadership quality — as Washington.
He has the same dedication to freedom, the same lack of rancor toward former enemies, and the same ability to get his countrymen to forgo their petty concerns and focus on the greater good.
Like Washington, he is being called "Father of His Country" in his own lifetime. And like Washington, he is beloved not just in his own country, but all over the world.
Can you guess whom I'm talking about? Nelson Mandela, of course. Enjoy him while we're still lucky enough to have him among us.
And let's try to be like him, too.