Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Great Curio

Just finished with Ron Chernow's Pulitzer-Prize-Winning biography, George Washington, A Life.

I've managed to make it almost to my 50th year without reading much about Washington.  Accordingly, I found going in that my sense of Washington is comprised of a vague bundle of half-baked ideas and mythical associations: that he "cannot tell a lie," that he was upright, that he was a great military leader. Even in life it seems there was a god-like aura surrounding Washington, and it hampered people forming a very down-to-earth sense of the man. The first biographies after his death were almost comically unrealistic.

Chernow starts with a clean slate and aims at a full-color portrait of Washington, tossing aside the mythology and assembling a fresh picture of Washington from original sources. Luckily for history, there are many contemporary accounts of him, and with so much repetition these views slot into our minds almost as our own--we almost come to think we know him. And while our cliched views have grown out of kernels of truth, the reality of the man was of course more human and flawed, more nuanced.

Part of Washington's legend involves his status as a great military general, so it's surprising to find that his skills were more political--think diplomacy and constancy--than military (to the extent that I can judge such things). While no one, it seems, failed to note his regal, almost royal, bearing, and his stoicism and unpretentiousness, it turns out there was plenty of dispute about his suitability for the country's highest military command. Though he had fought in the French and Indian War, when he was appointed to lead the Continental Army he was not widely experienced in running a large army. Many men felt themselves better qualified than he, and they may have had a point. The dominant characteristics from the many accounts of his character give a picture of charm and ease of manner and dignity without pretense or self-aggrandizement. And many people comment on his tendency to listen intensely but talk little. These things were very useful political skills. But on the field of battle he made as many blunders as triumphs, and his talent in what turned out to be largely a war of attrition was more in assembling and holding together an army from such meager raw materials as in how he used that army. In the circumstances this was an extremely valuable talent: greater military skill could have availed him little if there was no army to muster, and that was the very real threat facing him for much of the duration. Even with his great administrational talents, his army teetered many times on the brink of chaotic dissolution throughout the war.

This was another bit of news to me. I hadn't realized how difficult the conditions were under which the newly-formed army toiled. It's common that soldiers in antiquity died much more from disease than from battle wounds, but conditions for the Continental Army were appalling. They existed for the whole of the war with hardly any resources; their pay was always in arrears (often extraordinarily so); the ability to feed the men was often doubtful on a day-to-day basis; there were not enough weapons and a constant shortage of ammunition; the army had no uniforms and men were typically half-naked and / or dressed in rags and typically shoeless--even in the depths of winter. Many soldiers lived in camp for whole winters without a tent or even a blanket. Washington complained about these things vocally and continually, but it seems no one was able to act, even as men were dying from exposure.

Colonies or nation.

Maybe the single most striking thing of the Revolutionary War to me was the inability of the newborn nation to think and act in a collective way, even about its defense. The colonists did manage to muster an army, such as it was, and from the push for independence there arose a series of congresses that resulted in the Constitution. But these things were the first steps in forming a nation, and people needed time to begin to think collectively about their common goals. This collective thought was the great accomplishment of this small group of fertile minds in a sea of self-interest, and prior to this the individual colonies were quite insular. At any given moment during the war the army found support or scorn in exact proportion to the advantage expected by the people directly underfoot. There was naturally a strong thread of states' rights running through the delegates to the Continental Congresses, and most people were reluctant to cede any rights and responsibilities to a federal authority, even when in the midst of an altercation that needed a collective, national response. They would come to see their common purpose, but not without a struggle. History has many accounts of the disconnect between the soldier in the field and the citizen removed from the struggle. The soldiers are asked to sacrifice everything, while society at large--for whose rights and protection the soldiers are presumably asked to sacrifice--lives on in comfort. But Washington struggled for seven years to provide even the most essential things to his army--clothing and ammunition and food--and many times found himself with massive desertions and even starvations and exposure deaths because he could not get the Continental Congress to provide. That the coffers were empty did not help, nor did the inability of the new nation to borrow money when there was no strong, central entity with which other nations might deal.

And yet the colonies had plenty of money, but none of it was volunteered--nor requisitioned--for public use. Taxation to the British crown without representation in that crown's government was one of the things that forced the colonies to break with Britain; and so the states--which were the salient entities at the time--were reluctant to levy taxes to pay for war, especially when many citizens were slow to relinquish their allegiance to England. As soldiers were literally freezing and starving to death in camps positioned to defend cities from British attack, the citizens of those cities were selling their goods to the invading British Army. It's hard to imagine a more dispiriting circumstance for a soldier. (Washington, hinting early at his federalism, argued that a nation like England could borrow money to prosecute the war, giving them effectively unlimited resources.)


I'm always somehow unprepared to come face-to-face with this country's history of slavery, despite having read much about the Civil War, which placed the institution front and center. It is a thing so monstrously wrong, so repellant to any sense of morality or ethics, that to read about us warring over the subject--that is, to find a substantial portion of us willing to fight to keep it, especially so recently--can only be an indelible stain upon our national character. In thinking about WWII, I often wonder how Germany goes about life after the Third Reich; but we are faced with the same question after slavery.

Washington was, of course, a large slave holder, as were Jefferson and Madison and others of the founders. He is on record as disliking the institution, but his objections seem more practical than moral. His primary complaint seemed to be that he was not getting the best of the bargain when the cost of maintaining slaves was weighed against the value of their output as laborers. He prided himself on being fair-minded and liberal toward his slaves, and he was a more humane and sensitive master than most, and yet he drove them relentlessly and was not above having them whipped if he found them indolent. I'm skeptical that this kind of power would not alter a man's wiring in a deleterious way. For his whole life Washington seemed at a loss to understand why slaves were not eager to work hard despite there being no possibility of advancement or personal gain to come from it. This is a peculiar blindness.

Nothing casts more doubt upon Washington's character than his insistence on bringing slaves to Philadelphia during his presidency when the capitol was moved thence from New York City. Pennsylvania was a free state, and Philadelphia had a large population of free blacks, but Washington brought his own slaves into this environment and kept them in bondage even as they were surrounded by men and women enjoying freedom under the law. Worse yet, when he was made aware of a Pennsylvania law stipulating that any slaves residing in the state for six months would be automatically granted their freedom, he connived to be sure his own slaves were spirited back to Mount Vernon before this time elapsed to reset the clock--and then quickly returned to service in Philadelphia. And he lied about what he was doing and his motives, both to his slaves and to others. He told his slaves that they were returning briefly to Mount Vernon for humanitarian reasons, e.g. so that slaves could reunite with their spouses. (In breaking up the slave families in the first place he had broken one of his cardinal rules.) And letters between him and Martha showed that they maneuvered together to evade the Pennsylvania law. So much for not being able to tell a lie.

And for what? Where is the necessity to use slaves as your household servants? His argument that the  slave economy of Virginia and of his plantations could not simply be wiped away by fiat since there was no labor pool with which to replace the slaves has perhaps a shred of validity (though nobody seemed to consider freeing and then hiring the slaves to work for wages). But even if this argument holds true on his plantations in Virginia, it falls to pieces in Pennsylvania: as a free state, Pennsylvania DID have an economic structure where domestic servants for the President could be easily hired--and indeed their wages and attendant costs would have been paid by the federal government!

For the life of me, I can hardly see how to avoid seeing this as a stain on Washington's honor. It only makes sense in light of a man looking at other men in exactly the same way he looks at beasts of burden. The country is of course indebted to the man and his services on many fronts, but this chapter certainly scrubs away any godly patina.

I've also been disabused of any notion that our present state of divisive politics and brain-crumbling, 24-hour lying tits-and-ass news channels represent something new or unique to our age. Washington seemed to enjoy a special, even unique, status as our country was born; he was the universal choice for the country's first president, and even those who didn't especially like him or agree with his politics felt him the perfect choice for the office. But even if Washington for most of his presidential career remained aloof from most partisan issues, American political life, once delivered from the rancorous independence / colonialist question, quickly segmented into factions. One favored a strong federal government (the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton) and the other believed that states should be the governing authority and a strong central government risked monarchy (what became the Republican Party, with Thomas Jefferson as its figurehead). Even as Washington tried to stay out of the increasingly bitter and intractable fight between Jefferson and Hamilton, he was excoriated in the press with every imaginable charge in quite shocking fashion, especially during his second term. And it all looks quite familiar: stuff was just made up out of whole cloth with the intent to further a cause and damage an "enemy," and when he refused to take the bait then the press doubled down and doubled down again, denigrating his personal honor and war service in really scurrilous fashion. Like what you hear on Faux News today or coming from Tea Baggers' gatherings, there was no charge that either side could think up to denigrate Washington that was deemed off-limits--never mind that BOTH factions scandalizing him made it clear that NEITHER side possessed his favors.

I remember thinking this when reading about Lincoln's presidency as well: people are shitty and the press is shitty and honor and decorum extend only so far as they get results--and then the gloves come off. Lincoln suffered really humiliating and baseless criticism from all sides during his first term, and history shows that none of the people hurling the stones had accurately taken his measure--quite the contrary. Washington had something of Lincoln's unflappability and aloofness, though perhaps not quite the same ability to absorb invective without comment. But he absorbed plenty, and it's everyone else that comes off the worse for it.

Lastly, I would say this. In the new world of twitter and texting, many have lamented that we're losing our ability to write coherent, long-line thoughts. Well, reading the correspondence of Washington, a man who never went to college, makes the point glaringly obvious. The wonderful eloquence of his letters and speeches make us seem as though we've lost our command of the language.

This was a splendid read, a great story about a rare and worthy character in a tumultuous time.  Recommended.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

It's sounds fascinating. I'm always amazed that we beat the British and managed to stay a country, during the revolutionary process and also later, the Civil War.

wunelle said...

Absolutely agree. The whole Revolutionary War seemed touch-and-go, and things could have gone a number of ways other than how they did.

I find I admire most of Washington's character and find him a fascinating figure and a worthy one to stand at the center of these momentous events. But he won't supplant my love for Lincoln, whose greatness seems almost without equal.

dbackdad said...

I love these type of epic biographies but I haven't read any in a few years. I think McCullough's John Adams was the last I read. I'll look out for this one.