This week's column will be about George Washington. Last week I did Abraham Lincoln. There have been more books about Lincoln than any other American; four new ones reviewed in Time Magazine this past week.
Okay, George Washington whose birthday is in February: President's Month. Simply put, he was the greatest man to tread this earth in the 18th century. He was a teenage prodigy whose father had died when he was 11; a practical surveyor who generated plans for systems of roads, canals and public works, statesman, commanding general, business executive; farmer, real estate developer; pioneer and frontiersman long before Boone and Crockett; idealist, constant self-improver; justice of the peace, agronomist; millionaire, (in today's terms); animal breeder, (mules, bison); Episcopal vestryman, legislator visionary with a continental sweep to his futurism. Where to start?
He was surrounded by and selected some of our Founding Fathers. He was the BOSS and when any of several jobs was completed, he wanted to go home and get on with his private life. There's no question to Washington's granitic integrity, his candor; his internal agonizing to make sure of the absolute rightness of any decision he had to make throughout his 45 years of public service. In my opinion, George Washington noses out Thomas Jefferson as the greatest man in the world of the 18th century in terms of accomplishment and pervasive influence to this very day. I'm not taking anything away from Jefferson.
With the final title of brigadier general at age 23 in the Virginia militia, he was the highest-ranked American in the French and Indian war, had two horses shot from under him and, with the British Gen. Braddock killed, he led the final retreat back to his state and conducted himself with such brilliance that he got commendations from the Virginia House of Burgesses and special praise from King George II, whose grandson, George III, several decades later had to endure our seven-year-long Revolution under the leadership of this same youngster who eventually won America a stable victory and total independence.
In his middle 20s he was described as straight as an Indian, 6-foot-2, muscular, broad-shouldered, with penetrating blue-gray eyes, large straight nose, mouth large and firmly closed. (We only later learned about his teeth, problems caused by his early years living in the forests.)
Someone said, "In conversation he looks you full in the face, is deliberate, deferential and engaging. His demeanor at all times composed. His movements and gestures, graceful, his walk majestic and he was a splendid horseman." He learned his majesty's government would make it difficult for us to ever settle west of the Alleghenies and learned also of pending taxes without representation. He shared with most Americans his dislike of intrusive government and was adverse to taxes — any. (So, what's new?) As a member of the House he stood in the doorway and heard Patrick Henry startle the world with his "give me liberty or give me death."
He was almost 42 years old when the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia for the meeting that exploded with Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in 1776.
He missed that meeting because he was away and in command of almost all our military. There'd been a couple of skirmishes and a battle near Boston between the British and us so that simultaneously our Revolutionary War had commenced. He was in command of 20,000 rookies who were undisciplined but knew how to shoot. He surrounded Boston with cannon and bluffed the British into taking ship and abandoning that area. The infant war was now New York-centered and took a turn for the worse. Thus began more than five years of holding operations, rare-pitched battles, strategic retreats, tactics of delay and grim endurance. He soon learned that battling with French and Indians was not full preparation for a war against 120,000 British and Hessians across 800 miles. He became a pioneer in the art of spying, deception, in moving bodies of troops stealthily at high speed in fogs, darkness and cold. He won brilliant victories at Trenton and Princeton while Southern patriots were wearing down the British in the Carolinas and turning them north to walk into the coup de grace at Yorktown, Va. The brilliance of our delay tactics had brought the English-hating French to team with us and simply wear the British down. British Gen. Lord Howe summed matters up when he stated, "No gentleman fights a war in winter."
So back to Mt. Vernon. He thought he had retired. We were free but our new civilian government was so ineffective that he concluded with others that we might have won the war for naught. When a convention was called, he hesitated about going. He was already old — 55 — and a world figure. But he went to Philadelphia and was made president of the convention that produced our Constitution, the very one we have today. "He was more nationalist and less provincial than anybody," (Samuel Morrison) The wise writers placed great power in the hands of the proposed head of state because they believed he'd inevitably be Washington.
He went back to Virginia and threw all his influence behind constitutional ratification by his own state of Virginia. (He had none of the ambivalence of Robert E. Lee, who years later in different circumstances decided he was a Virginian first.)
Washington for his remaining years thought only of the nation. It could have gone otherwise, but the Constitution was r.jpgied. He became our first president, having never campaigned nor sought the office. The Electoral College elected him president unanimously in 1789. There were 4 million people in the United States in the census of 1790.
(Continued in Sunday's newspaper, Feb. 17)
• Attorney Austin Cunningham has been the president of five business companies and in 1988 was named Outstanding Elder Citizen of the Year for South Carolina.