Saturday, April 28, 2007

George Washington: Nation's father or illiterate bonehead?

Yesterday, I hailed our good King George the third, and today I'd like to draw a parallel to our good king and the first George, the glorious conqueror of Princeton. What people tend to forget in the heat of the political fray of the day is that, as in all things, there is nothing new under the sun. Back in the immediate post revolutionary days, there were factions bent on creating a God of George Washington -- the forbearer's of today's Republicans -- and those trying to cut him down to size -- the Democrat's great-grand daddies -- roughly speaking.

I don't have to time to go into all the ins and outs of the political landscape of the 1790's, but when you look at what's going on today with W.'s steadfast adherence to his disaster in Iraq and Washington's serial blunders during the Revolutionary War, you start to see that George the first and third have a lot in common. What got me thinking about this was an article in the NYT yesterday about a letter of Washington's found in a little girl's scrapbook.

According to the NYT: "His correspondence was wide and frequent, but discoveries of his letters, especially those in which he says something notable, are somewhat rare, scholars and archivists say." There's probably a reason that finding letters in which he writes anything notable are so rare. From what I've read about him, he was pretty much the intellectual equal of our present-day boy-king.

The letter in question was addressed to General Horatio Gates, the victor of Saratoga, a rival to Washington during the war, who many in the Continental Congress wanted to replace Washington with. The letter itself isn't particularly interesting, except that, according to Theodor J. Crackel, the editor in chief of the papers of George Washington, the part about the Constitutional Convention "Is Washington at his best." [ Some are still trying to create a deity out of him.]

The point I'm trying to make here is that, except for the raid on a small number of hung-over Hessians in Princeton, Washington pretty much lost every other battle he ever fought. His stay at Valley Forge was seen at the time not as a heroic struggle to survive the winter, it was seen, in fact, as a retreat. The governments of New Jersey and Pennsylvania were particularly adamant that Washington not leave their states to the tender mercies of the British, which is what he wound up doing. (Remember, not only did Washington lose New York, he also lost Philadelphia.)

On Friday, Dec. 19 1777, Congress wrote to Washington in Valley Forge:

"Congress resumed the consideration of . . . the remonstrance from the executive council and assembly of Pennsylvania; Whereupon, Resolved, That a copy of the remonstrance be transmitted by express to General Washington, and that he be desired from Congress to inform Congress . . . what measures are agreed upon for the protection of . . . Pennsylvania.
That General Washington be further informed that, in the opinion of Congress, the state of New Jersey demands . . . the protection of the armies of the United States . . ."

And, Pennsylvania's executive council and assembly resolves:

"1st. That by the army's removal . . . [a] great part of this state . . . must be left in the Power of the Enemy, subject to their Ravages. . .

2nd. . . [T]oo many of our people are so disaffected already . . . [T] hose who have taken the most active support of our cause will be discouraged & give up all as lost. "

3rd. The removal of our Army, it will be impossible to recruit . . .

4th. The Army removing . . . must give a final Stab to the Credit of the Continental Currency . . . [it] is very difficult to purchase from many of our most able Farmers the necessary Provisions of our Army, owing to the fear of the money . . ."

That last part was especially important.

As Good ol' Tom Paine wrote in his 36 page Letter to George Washington (July 30 1796):

"[Had] it not been for the aid received from France in men, money and ships, your cold and unmilitary conduct . . . [you] would in all probability have lost America; at least she would not have been the independent nation she now is. You slept away your time in a filed till the finances were completely exhausted, and you have little share in the glory of the final event. It is time, sir, to speak the undisguised language of historical truth."

The Constitutional Congress urged Washington to supply himself from the land around, but instead of doing what his fellow Virginian Robert E. Lee did 90 years later to such great effect, he just sat and wrote letters blaming Congress for all his problems.

Dec. 23 1777:

"[U]less some great and capital change suddenly takes place in that line, this Army must inevitably be reduced to one or other of these three things. Starve, dissolve, or disperse in order to obtain subsistence. . . [W]ith truth, then, I can declare no Man in my opinion ever had measures more impeded than I have by every department of the Army."

In other words, it's all Congress' fault, kind of like what's going on now. 'You must fund the troops!. It's not the complete incompetence of the "war president", it's stupid politicians trying to micromanage the war.'

On Jan. 12, 1778 Benjamin Rush wrote to Patrick Henry:

"[Our] army, what is it? A Major-General belonging to it called it a few days ago, in my hearing, a mob. Discipline unknown or wholly neglected . . The northern army has shown us what Americans are capable of doing with a General at their head. The spirit of the southern army is in no way inferior to the spirit of the northern. A Gates, a Lee, or a Conway would in a few weeks render them an irresistible body of men."

Nathaniel Green and Francis Marion, the "Swamp Fox," in the south had no such supply problems or Gates in upper New York at Saratoga. They just went out and fought, they didn't sit in a warm cabin and winge about their problems.

The truth is, if it hadn't been for the Count De Grasse's fleet showing up at Yorktown in 1781, Washington would have moved on with his plans to re-take New York and would have probably lost the Revolution.

Of course, by 1788 he was already re-writing history. On July 31 1788 he wrote in response to a letter by Noah Webster in American Magazine that. "It never was in contemplation to attack New York." He had always planned on going to Yorktown. [Yeah, right.]

John Adams wrote:

"Colonel [T]imothy Pickering made me a visit [on one occasion], and, finding me alone, spent a long evening with me. We had a multitude of conversion. I had then purchased [a book] . . . and there was a letter in it that was extremely unhappy to see there, I asked what that letter is that? . Col. Pickering answered, 'It is a letter from General Washington [of July 31, 1788]' . . .

Colonel Pickering said he was extremely sorry to see that letter in print. I asked him why? What do you see amiss in it? What harm will it do? Col. Pickering said, 'It will injure General Washington's character.' How will it injure him? Stratagems are lawful in war. Colonel Pickering answered me, "It will hurt his moral character. He has been generally thought to be honest . . . [T]hat letter is false. and I know it to be so. I knew him to be vain and weak and ignorant, but I thought he was well-meaning; but that letter is a lie, and I know it to be so.' I objected and queried."


" . . . He had seriously meditated on an attack upon New York for near twelve months and had made preparations at an immense expense for that purpose. Washington never had a thought of marching to the southward, til Count De Grasse's fleet appeared upon the coast, consequently, that letter is a disgrace.'"

This next part is where the whole the-wonders-of Washington's-letter thing comes in:

"[He] dwelt . . . on Washington's ignorance, weakness, and vanity. He was so ignorant that he had never read anything, not even on military affairs; he could not write a sentence of grammar, not spell his words &c., &c. To this I objected. I had been in Congress with Washington in 1774 and in May and part of June 1775 and read all his letters to Congress in 1775, 1776, 1777 and had formed a quite different opinion of his literary talent. His letters were well written and well spelled.

Pickering replied, 'He did not write them, he only copied them.' Who did write them? 'His secretaries and aides . . . '"

Hmm, sounds like someone else we know, doesn't it?

[Excerpted from the excellent American Aurora, by Richard N. Rosenfeld.]

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