Lately I’ve been reading a lot of histories and biographies dealing with the American Revolutionary War period and its aftermath. It’s a fascinating story — and a lot more interesting than the tale of the inevitability of American greatness that we learned in grade school, junior high and high school, long ago.
One point that has struck me repeatedly as I’ve read is that American independence, and the later welding of the different colonies into a single nation, was a very close call. There were many instances, during the Revolutionary War, during the Articles of Confederation period, and then as the new nation started to function under the Constitution, when the whole American idea easily could have foundered and the 13 colonies and states could have fractured forever. The war itself, against the greatest power on earth and fought with a fifth column of Tories opposing the overthrow of British rule, could easily have been lost. And after the war, as the country stumbled forward into a new, post-colonial world, it became clear that the “Founding Fathers” held to a lot of different notions of what a country should look like, the colonies were wracked by debt that irresponsible politicians were unwilling to pay, and always the scourge of slavery threatened to drive a wedge between the colonies and break them apart.
Inevitably, these near-misses were resolved in significant part through one man: George Washington. During the Revolutionary War he was the general who was selected by acclaim and whose reputation for leadership and integrity helped to keep the colonial forces together through repeated disasters. After the War ended, his willing support of a constitutional convention, and his service as the President of the convention — elected unanimously, of course — gave crucial credibility to the effort to reinvent the government. And when the new Constitution was finally written, and the new government was ready to start, Washington’s reluctant agreement to serve as the first President — where he deftly mediated between the opposing viewpoints of Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and others, steered a middle course between the agrarian dreamers and the hard-headed mercantilists, and kept the country functioning, credit-worthy, and out of a war with the British or entanglement with the French Revolution — permitted his thoughtful, deliberate, and typically selfless judgment to set the course for the new nation and establish the many precedents and protocols that have guided the leaders of our country down to the present day,
Read biographies of any of the other leaders of early America and you will always see George Washington as a key part of the story, as the figure who had to be persuaded to lend crucial credibility to the cause, as the ultimate decisionmaker, and as the one person who enjoyed heartfelt support from the rock-bound coast of New England, through the mid-Atlantic states, all the way south to the red clay of Georgia. These days it’s fashionable to poke fun at Washington for his teeth and his careful ways, and to characterize him as a plodder in comparison to the brilliance of the Jeffersons and Hamiltons, but in reality, in the early days of the American experiment, George Washington was the essential man. The description of Washington as the “Father of His Country” is apt, but it actually may not go far enough in capturing the importance of his central role in holding the early republic together, time and again. He was the key figure who helped turn 13 squabbling colonies into the United States of America.
This Independence Day, I’m going to reflect for a bit on how very fortunate our country was to have George Washington when and where it did.
Happy Independence Day!