George Washington – Father of our Country?

George Washington

George Washington

Military Leader

George Washington, ‘Father of our Country’.  Does he deserve the title?  Was he the victorious general who won the Revolutionary War? Maybe not.  He lost more battles than he won.  In 1776, he was defeated as the British captured New York City.  True, after retreating across the Delaware, Washington’s daring victories at Trenton and Princeton drove the British back to New York, keeping the army and revolution alive.  In 1777, he lost battles at Brandywine and Germantown, with the British taking Philadelphia.  The last Revolutionary war battle in the North was the battle of Monmouth, which ended up as a draw. From 1778 until 1781, Washington’s army was not involved in any major battles.

The 1777 victory at Saratoga led to the French entering the war on the American side against the British.  Washington was not involved in this campaign.  Starting in 1778, the British focused their campaign on the Southern states.  After several American defeats, victories by Generals Greene and Morgan at Cowpens and Kings Mountain, led British General Cornwallis to move into Virginia and then Yorktown. The French provided the bulk of the troops and supplies for the campaign.  And the French navy defeated the British navy in its attempt to relieve Cornwallis.  Yorktown was as much a French victory as an American one.

Washington’s pre-revolutionary military career was also full of setbacks.  His first assignment, under the British, was to lead a diplomatic mission to the French, and subsequently to assist in building a fort at present day Pittsburgh. Washington set up the fort near Pittsburgh, known as Fort Necessity, which the French overran, forcing Washington to surrender. The next year, 1755, Washington participated in an expedition led by British General Braddock to try to take back the fort. This expedition was a disaster, although Washington got credit for bravery in battle and in organizing the retreat. Washington did gain valuable military experience in the French and Indian War.

However, instead of measuring him on battles won and lost consider these facts:

  • He kept an impoverished army intact
  • He was resilient through setbacks
  • he blended troops from different states which were almost different countries in those days
  • he dealt with a continual turnover of army as enlistments expired
  • he was always short of men, shoes, shirts, blankets, and gunpowder
  • he outlasted five British generals.

I think we can conclude that Washington the victorious general who won the Revolutionary War. 

President

As first President, everyone supported him, right? His second term was full of partisanship and rancor.  The first Supreme Court nomination ever to be rejected by the Senate was a Washington appointee – John Rutledge.  Alexander Hamilton’s plan for federal assumption of the state debts and establishment of a government bank were extremely controversial at the time.  The bills passed with the North generally supporting and the Southern states against. The John Jay Treaty, considered by some to be a sellout to Great Britain, was signed during his term, and barely ratified by the Senate.  Washington was a member of the Federalist camp, which believed in a stronger central government.  He was heavily opposed by, among others, Jefferson and Madison, who strongly feared government power.  During Washington’s terms there were a significant number of bills that resulted in a tie vote in the Senate, requiring Vice President Adams to cast the tie breaking vote.  If Washington was Father of the Country, it did not mean that everyone followed him.

He had harsh critics. Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, ran a newspaper, which included the following editorial when Washington left office:

“If ever there was a period of rejoicing, this is the moment. Every heart in unison with the freedom and happiness of the people, ought to beat high with exultation that the name of Washington from this day ceased to give a currency to political iniquity and to legalized corruption…  When a retrospect is taken of the Washington administration for eight years, it is a subject of the greatest astonishment, that a single individual should have cankered the principles of republicanism in an enlightened people, just emerged from the gulf of despotism, and should have carried his designs against the public liberty so far as to have put in jeopardy its very existence.

You think we live in partisan times today?  Mr. Bache was jailed for daring to criticize the government.

On the other hand, Washington was unanimously elected to every post he served. He was made President of the Constitutional Convention as delegates felt he had earned the nation’s trust and this was necessary to gain support for a new constitution.  He won both Presidential elections with 100% of the electoral college vote. He was the only person trusted with the role of executive as there was still a great fear of excessive central power.  After his first term, both Jefferson and Hamilton, while political enemies of each other, both felt Washington needed to run again for a second term, as the country would stand behind him.

Freedom

What about freedom? Washington owned slaves.  The Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia where the law held that any slave who remained in the state for six months was automatically freed.  To get around this law, Washington rotated slaves back to Mount Vernon, so that none stayed in Philadelphia for more than six months.  Washington had continual money difficulties and did not feel he could financially afford to give up his slaves.  He had to borrow money to travel to his own Inauguration. But, recognizing the problem slavery posed to the country, he freed his slaves in his will including providing for their education and support in old age!

Washington also provided strong support for religious freedom.  Most famously is a letter written to the Jews after a visit to Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790.  Rhode Island was an interesting state back then. It did not participate in the Constitutional Convention, nor did it initially approve the new Constitution. In March 1789, the new Constitution went into effect having been approved by eleven states (only nine were needed).  North Carolina, the twelfth state, approved it shortly thereafter, but Rhode Island held out.  A year later, in May 1790, the U.S. Congress threatened to embargo trade with Rhode Island and the state finally approved the U.S. Constitution.  There is something about Rhode Island.  The 17th amendment provides for the direct election of Senators - prior to that state legislators elected the Senate.  This amendment was ratified in 1913 but, for some reason Rhode Island waited over 100 years, until 2013 to pass this amendment.   Rhode Island has never ratified the 16th amendment, which allows for the income tax.  Perhaps they are on to something.

Back to George Washington and the Jews.  He decided to visit all the states after becoming President in 1789.  But he would not go to Rhode Island until they had ratified the Constitution.  Which he did in 1790.  The Jews of Newport send a greeting letter and Washington responded, including this famous paragraph, which supports the concept of freedom as natural right, not something to be granted by one group of people to another.

“…The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support…”

Peaceful Transition of Power

So, George Washington, as a general lost more battles than he won.  He faced bitter partisanship, but was considered the unifying leader of the country.  He supported both religious freedom and the end of slavery.  But ultimately, I believe that Washington’s establishment of the principle of peaceful transition of power earns him the title as ‘Father of our Country’.

He voluntarily stepped down both as commander of the army in 1783 and later as President in 1797, establishing the principle of civilian control of the military and, most important, peaceful transition of power.  King George III of Britain was reputed to have said, referring to Washington voluntarily giving up power, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world”.   Consider these words, stated by Washington in 1783, when he resigned his military position

“Mr. President: The great events, on which my resignation depended, having at length taken place, I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country.
 General George Washington Resigning His Commission

 General George Washington Resigning His Commission

Happy in the confirmation of our independence and sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable nation, I resign with satisfaction the appointment I accepted with diffidence; a diffidence in my abilities to accomplish so arduous a task, which, however, was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause, the support of the supreme power of the Union, and the patronage of Heaven…
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theater of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”

Many other revolutions have ended in violence.  Maybe the reason ours did not, can be explained by Washington’s simple act of voluntary resignation, establishing the principle of peaceful transition.  For that alone he is ‘Father of Our Country’.