Wednesday, April 18, 2012

George Washington honored (?) as Britain's greatest foe

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year....

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere

Patriots' Day was celebrated in Massachusetts this week. Although no one seems to remember, Patriots' Day is more than just the day on which the Boston Marathon is run. Actually, the day commemorates the anniversary of what Ralph Waldo Emerson called the "shot heard round the world," the April 19, 1775 Battles of Lexington and Concord, the start of the American Revolution.

Paul Revere's Ride was meant to warn the local militia of the British march from Boston (the Redcoats were seeking to capture a cache of arms and ammunition stored by patriots at Concord):

["]One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Real life was not as glorious for Mr. Revere as Longfellow's poem suggested: Revere never made it to Concord; he was captured by the British in Lexington and his horse confiscated. But the alarm got through.

This brings us to the present, where, in a contest sponsored by Britain's National Army Museum, George Washington was named "Britain's Greatest Enemy Commander."

According to this Reuters account, by Angus MacSwan, posted on Yahoo! News, Washington was chosen ahead of Napoleon, Erwin Rommel, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Ireland's Michael Collins.
Making the case for Washington, historian Stephen Brumwell said the American War of Independence (1775-83) was "the worst defeat for the British Empire ever."

"His personal leadership was crucial," he said.

Washington was a courageous and inspirational battlefield commander who led from the front but also had the skills to deal with his political counterparts in Congress and with his French allies, Brumwell said. Above all, he never gave up even when the war was going against him.

"His army was always under strength, hungry, badly supplied. He shared the dangers of his men. Anyone other than Washington would have given up the fight. He came to personify the cause, and the scale of his victory was immense."
The British have been smarting over the outcome of the American Revolution ever since.

After the Revolution, in fact, it was remembered how a jewel had dropped from George III's crown on his coronation day, in 1760. In the revealing glare of 20/20 hindsight, that mishap was interpreted as a foreshadowing of the loss of the American colonies.

While it may still be necessary, therefore, even now, to make allowances for British sensitivities about the success of the American Revolution, this gratuitous slap in Mr. MacSwan's article must nevertheless be called out:
"None of the five [finalists] is particularly pleasant ideologically," [said Matthew Hughes of London's Brunel University, adding] that even Washington was a slave owner whose newly forged country then went on to try to destroy its native population.
What kind of history professor is this?

Yes, Washington was a slave owner. Slavery was a vital component of British trade and a pillar of the British economy in Washington's lifetime.

Of all the slave-holding Founding Fathers, only Washington freed his slaves. (Washington's will made arrangements for the emancipation of his slaves.) Washington's relationship with slaves and slavery is indefensible by modern standards, but by any fair measure he was far ahead of his time.

William Wilberforce, the great British abolitionist, was not converted to the cause until 1787 -- after American independence -- and his great Parliamentary triumph, the Slave Trade Act of 1807 (years after Washington's death), did not end slavery in British colonies, but merely the importation of slaves. This was at about the same time that the importation of slavery was officially banned in the United States.

Nor can Washington be blamed for how his "newly forged country then went on to try to destroy its native population." Many indigenous nations sided with the British in the Revolution; they hoped that a victorious Britain might halt, or at least slow, America's westward expansion. But Washington did not adopt a punitive approach in his administration's relations with indigenous tribes and the historic injustices of later American governments toward indigenous inhabitants can not be attributed to Washington.

No less than King George III said of Washington (upon hearing that Washington was to voluntarily retire as head of the Continental Army in 1783), "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world."

Washington could have been an American Caesar -- but Washington modeled himself after another consular called to be Dictator of Rome. About four hundred years before Julius Caesar's assassination, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was twice called from retirement to become Dictator. Legend has it that, on the first of these occasions, Cincinnatus left his plow in the field when the Senate came to ask his aid in rescuing the Republic. He attended to the threat and promptly gave up his office -- returning to his plow still waiting in the field where he had left it.

Like Cincinnatus, Washington voluntarily relinquished power not once, but twice. He insisted on retiring after his second term as President of the United States to prevent setting a precedent of American leaders clinging to power for life.

If that's an "unpleasant ideology," I'll have a double, please.

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