Friday, December 30, 2005

First in the hearts of his countrymen

Because I'm like an eight-year-old boy when it comes to American Presidents, here's some Washington stuff I learned from Joseph J. Ellis's wonderful biography, His Excellency, that I read last weekend.

First and perhaps most importantly, I discovered that Washington wore a black velvet suit to his first inauguration. Do you think Elvis's face was on the back?

Also, in the midst of the XYZ Affair, a 1798 crisis in which President John Adams revealed that French operatives demanded a ₤50,000 bribe to meet with American diplomatic envoys trying to defuse tensions and avert war (which was possibly part of some borderline treasonous intriguing on the parts of Jefferson and Madison), Abigail Adams was said to have offered this Fourth of July toast, "John Adams. May he, like Samson, slay thousands of Frenchmen with the jawbone of Jefferson."

In what Ellis convincingly argues was the worst mistake of Washington's career—and one of his few large-scale mistakes, period—Washington agreed to lead the Provisional Army, a newly recreated version of the Continental Army, if disagreements with Napoleonic France came to war. In reality, the Provisional Army was intended by Alexander Hamilton (who was to be in command in Washington's stead until the moment of war with France) as a permanent army that he could use to increase his standing in the Federalist Party, intimidate his rivals, and preemptively attack French possessions in the Americas.

From this vantage point, it seems clear that such a scheme, had it come to fruition, would have been the end of the nascent American republic. As Ellis puts it, "Hamilton had convinced himself that Napoleon's imperial ambitions did include North America, not an implausible conviction, and that he alone possessed the vision and energy not only to thwart such threats, but also to out-Napoleon Napoleon himself." Disaster was averted when John Adams announced, to everyone's surprise, that he would send another peace envoy to France, thereby removing in one stroke the threat of incipient war and the rationale for creating a new army.

The sense of personal indispensability is possibly the belief most dangerous to the health of democracy. Hamilton believed it. George W. Bush believes it. It's almost never true, and it's essential to the functioning of a democracy that that be the case. In essence, in the eyes of government we need to all be like the religious would have us be before god: all the same, one no better or more important than another

And therein, argues Ellis, as others have done, lay Washington's true genius. Despite his misstep regarding the Provisional Army (which he began to regret once the full duplicity of Hamilton's ambitions became clear), Washington always behaved as one who did not think he was indispensable, even in cases—like when he held together the Continental Army at the low point of the war, or when he lent his stature to the new republic as its first president and thereby enabled it to hold its uneasy factions together—when it could be easily argued that he truly was.

Washington gave up power, voluntarily, in situations where lesser men would have grasped for more. He was not indispensable, and believing that he was would have caused him to destroy the very nation he'd been fighting to create. In exchange for that renunciation, he received eternal prestige and the admiration of posterity.


  1. Jefferson treasonous?




  2. Now, to be fair, I'm taking Ellis's position here, waiting until I have a moment to read a good Jefferson bio, but it does seem clear that Jefferson was a) very, very cosy with the French just-post-French Revolution, and b) not the slightest bit concerned about undermining Washington from within the cabinet or Madison from outside it.