Presidental Review George Washington

21 Feb

I’ve been wanting to review history for some time, and to honor his birthday, today we’re going to review Mr. 1 dollar bill himself, George Washington!!!!!

Actually Washington is incredibly difficult to review as a president.  He didn’t have to run for office, in fact he was specifically chosen for the presidency by the makers of the Constitution.  (The only other serious contender, Ben Franklin, bowed out due to age.)  Washington is one of the few individuals in American history who were as popular in their time as they are currently, in fact, I doubt there ever was even so much of a dip in esteem since his time in office.

Also, there’s such a large amount of mythmaking about this man.  First there’s the cherry tree nonsense, a made-up story which Parson Weems seemed to almost intentionally create to make every child hate George Washington with an unmitigated fury.  I’m sorry but that story makes him sound like exactly the sort of kid who would own up to their mistakes to adults in a way which makes everyone else look bad.  Maybe that’s why lil G.W. had no friends.  Also, it’s not like he really could have lied about the tree–how many other people were around that would chop it down?  Was it THAT hard a mystery to solve?  Anyway, it’s a myth so it doesn’t count.

Beyond that, George Washington has a reputation of being almost superhuman.  They talk about his strength, his drinking habits (now and then but not too much), his religion (now and then but not too much), he was great at dancing, he had a voice of a thousand angels, he invented the steam-buggy…ok I’m starting to get carried away.  The point is, he’s turned into a mythical figure, sure he might have had a bunch of talents, but he’s probably the only historical person of non-holy background to be seen as flawless, which is a shame really, because it almost takes away from his true and real greatness.

Anyway, the reasons George Washington was picked were many–first, he was a very popular general after a winning war, second, he had almost nothing to do with the Articles of Confederation government, third, he had no offspring so any (and these were real) fears of him becoming a king were moot, forth, he wasn’t an ideologue.  Now I know a lot of people who love quoting founding fathers use him as a reference, but he wasn’t the thinker of that group, in fact he tended to shy away from anything  that smelled like idealistic chit-chat, and largely kept his opinions of government, and the philosophy of government to himself.

I remember one of my teachers saying that generals make bad presidents.  I don’t know where she got that rule from (maybe Ulysses S. Grant) but actually the reverse tends to be true.  People that come from the military have the greatest chance of rising above the political infighting of government because their career hadn’t been based in that sort of functioning, while at the same time, they’ve had to be leaders in very stressful situations.  Most of our presidents have been in the military at some point, and two very good ones (Washington and Eisenhower) were generals.

So as president Washington had a bunch of challenges.  If we graded them they would go like this.  1) The establishment of the American presidency and a good chunk of the American government in a functional way (A+), 2)  His handling of The Whiskey Rebellion which set up a precedence that taxes are a required American duty for citizens for the common good (A+) 3) Jay’s Treaty which gave the United States definite borders and tied up most of the unresolved issues between America and Britain after the revolutionary war (A+)  4)The founding of the American Navy (A+)

Then there’s two *uncomfortable* issues that aren’t all sunshine and roses–1) The Northwest Indian War (ugh–D) and 2) Slavery (which is such a cluster that his grade goes beyond letters.)

So for the easier of the two, The Northwest Indian War–so we’ve gotten this land through a treaty that the people who live on it are crazy enough to believe that they own it.  We send in soldiers.  The Brits supply Native Americans with guns while (wink wink) staying out of it.  The message being, we can have the Northwest territories (Ohio and wherabouts) if we can take it.  What followed was a bloody war where both sides had terrible losses.  In fact the United States was decidedly on the losing side –for ten years there were a series of raids and village burnings on both sides which raged out of control.   This war started the pattern America followed in Indian wars through the 19th century–destroy villages and send in people until Native Americans are forced to cede land.  At least in this war the two sides were somewhat evenly matched.

Slavery is much tougher.  Many history scholars maintain that Washington intended for slavery to slowly diminish over time, and always bring up the fact that Washington emancipated his slaves after his death.  The truth is a little less comfy than that though.  While it is true that he didn’t want to raise the issue of slavery to a new country out of fears of splitting it up, at the same time wouldn’t that have been an ideal time to start over with a new leaf?  Also, he had no apparent qualms about signing the fugitive slave act, or sending aid to Haitian slave owners to keep the slaves there from becoming free.    Also at least some of Washington’s slaves were unhappy, he had two run away.  Beyond that, though Washington’s slaves were emancipated at his death, his wife’s slaves were not.

And it’s not as if other founding fathers ended owning slaves as a practice, whether it was Benjamin Franklin cold-turkey style, or John Jay’s practice of treating slaves like indentured servants, letting them free after a period of time (not perfect but at least it’s a start.)

And that’s where the true character of Washington comes in.  He was a general.  A man who gets things done and believes in protocol but is definitely not about trying to change society or the way it is built.  He did many fantastic deeds as a country builder, but as for society–he wasn’t about to shake the tree.  In fact, his definition of American citizen (Caucasian Male) would be the definition for the first 90 years of this country, and would take another 100 to shake off entirely after that.

And that’s a shame, because Washington was a great president in many ways, I feel so disheartened about his social stances particularly because he was the one founding father who had the biggest chance of changing that.  Things were fresh and new, and nobody could say but that’s how we’ve always done things, because there was no always, we were just beginning.

But at least he made a beginning of a country where rules are changeable, even if they are unjust, and for that I give him credit for being a great president.

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