Wednesday, November 23, 2005

For Thanksgiving

The title essay in Edmund Morgan's collection of (mostly) writings from the New York Review of Books, The Genuine Article, is about George Washington. Morgan, like many, has clearly grappled with Washington for a lifetime, yet he still admits to uncertainties about what it was that gave Washington the aura of greatness that nearly all his contemporaries attested to. In a period of eloquent writers and inventive, brilliant thinkers, he was neither. As a general, he lost nearly every battle he commanded. As president, he provoked serious opposition and left as his primary legacy his refusal to seek a third term.

Yet it seems that few who look into his life come away unimpressed. The most perceptive and interesting bit of "The Genuine Article" presents a convincing semi-explanation of Washington's appeal

Washington seems to have been born with a thirst for public respect of a special kind. He wanted nothing more than honor, and he had identified its ingredients so clearly that he knew he would miss getting it if he showed himself wanting it as badly as he did. He wished to be honored by deserving it. If his neighbors placed a high value on graceful ballroom dancing or fine horsemanship, he wanted not simply to have the reputation but to be the most greaceful dancer and the finest horseman. If they honored physical courage, he would give them courage, leading Virginia's militia against the French when he was only twenty-two. In the contest with England, he found the larger cause he needed to gain larger honor and deliberately placed himself in a position to win it by command of the Continental Army. In the end, his own successful quest won him the prestige to honor the cause that had honored him. . . . Washington continually sought to make nature imitate art, to make his life conform to the perfection of character and conduct that was his ideal.

Take a moment and compare that approach to that of our current president. Do you think the 18th-century Karl Rove, powdered wig and all, would have suggested that he step down voluntarily after two terms?

Morgan's whole book is interesting and worth reading, a here-and-there tour through early American history, a type of book I find particularly pleasant, wherein a smart author reads through all sorts of very specialized books and picks out the best parts on our behalf.

Have a good Thanksgiving. Don't forget to thank Tisquantum!


  1. You're right, an 18th century Rove would never have advocated a voluntary two-term limit for his own president. In many ways he is the anti-Washington: concerned above all with bringing public dishonor to his foes.

    "Federalists saw what happened on July 4, 1776, and vowed to become the finest dancers and horsemen the world had ever seen. Democratic-Republicans saw what happened on July 4th, and wanted to powder their wigs and scribble big fancy words on paper with their frilly quills."

  2. George Washington as samurai? I like it.

    Now write one where Lincoln is a ninja.