Brushfire of Freedom
The Irritable Pundit
Recently, a posting on the Daily KOS caught the eye of your own Irritable Pundit. It was something along the lines of "Obama is the greatest President ever!"
Hmmm... OK. Lets look at the greatest President ever.
A lot of stories have been told about him. A less-than-accurate preacher created some of them for his own reasons, spinning tales as he asked for money. Those tales have been repeated endlessly ever since. Other stories told about him were true but accidents really. An event out of context that fortuitously fed the growing sense of wonder that people had about him. Finally, other stories mention a willingness to take risks, and a will undaunted by anything. These are all true. Hope, in the darkest hour, was real to him. And change? Oh yes, there would be change. But his greatest single character driven belief was that power should, in virtually all things, be held by individuals and not the government.
And poof! Liberal dreams of yet another sycophantic paean to Obama vanish. Our greatest President ever was George Washington -- period. Though not simply due to the "celebrity of the first".
The Washington most of us know is a caricature. Parson Weems glossed the reputation of Washington well after the fact. Silver dollars and cherry trees became the fodder of school book readers. Generally Weems' stories were made up out of whole cloth, to preach temperance and restraint in all but his donation box. But interestingly, Washington's life needed no embellishment from public speakers to become legend, as fate took care of creating the legend itself without assistance.
Was Washington honest? Without doubt, but he could tell a lie as well as any other. False teeth? Sure, but he was not the box-mouthed man many of us have been led to believe. For men of history, a great artist would ask to sit and paint his image. Other artists would later view and copy that image for use in their own paintings, wood-cuttings, what-have-you. One of the early sitting portraits was done by a Frenchman who frankly hated Washington, and decided to "emphasize" what he saw. Creating the brutish lantern-jawed image that thereafter became the accepted image of Washington. Yes, the press and their publishing of poor photographs for subjects with whom they disagree has a long pedigree my friends. Was Washington a great military mind? Yes, but that characterization ignores that he lost many more battles than he won. Regardless, the caricatures are nothing compared to the context-lost events that created the abiding legend. Please note: Many early stories of great men and women are anecdotal and one can never be sure of their accuracy on a good day, but such is legend. Ready? lets go!
Example: George Washington could knock a bullet out of the air with his sword.
Oddly enough this apparently actually happened, just not in the manner it was told. "Ball Shot", the early black powder ammunition, did not travel as well as modern bullets. The shape and makeup of its soft metal made ricochets less deadly than the lethal alloy-jacketed kevlar-piercing rounds modern soldiers carry into battle. In the mid to late 1700s, A shot that continued to travel after striking something first was a "spent round", a slow moving ball of lead that could injure, but not generally kill.
A young officer in one of a series of truly amazing circumstances was extolling his company to victory, telling them that they could and would charge and take the enemy position! They would not fail! And shouting such slogans, George Washington drew his saber and waved it around over his head. Please understand that the firearms of the day were extraordinarily inaccurate and quite troublesome to reload, so Officers revving up their command could often be seen quite well while by the opposing side (generally doing the same thing) with never a shot being fired until the charge. It was a drama that was replayed countless times in battle. However this time someone took a shot, naturally missed, and the ricochet bounced back up and hit the sword of George Washington as he swung it mightily while making his impromptu speech. There was a "CLANG!" and the ball landed in a puff of dust at the feet of his horse. Imagine that one was much discussed over ale? You bet.
Example: George Washington was so fierce and brave that he would singlehandedly charge an enemy position.
Well, yes and no. As the story is generally told, young Washington and his small group came upon a hilltop and sighted a larger company below. Having the high ground Washington immediately called for a charge, and in the impetuousness of youth led the charge himself. Washington was blissfully unaware that his men had not in fact followed him and so continued his charge, sword waving overhead and screaming like a banshee. The French company, looking in disbelief at the single madman galloping along towards them simply did not fire, apparently out of confusion and disbelief. Pulling up before the French field officer, Washington realized he was alone and having nothing else to do, hit the officer with the bell-guard of his sword. Washington spun back towards his men, riding like the devil was on his heels.
Our fine Frenchmen were in disarray and their officer, no doubt with ears still ringing, did not immediately order his men to fire. By the time they did fire, Washington was well on his way back to his men. It should go without saying that Washington's men looked on him at that moment and thereafter, with nothing short of awe. When Washington turned and again gave the order to charge, they did so without hesitation. How do you argue with a force of nature? These stories joined with others (some true, many false) as yarns were and still are a pastime among soldiers. By the Revolutionary war, there was no one else who could compare. In the war itself, it is often mentioned that the army would follow no other. After the war, the citizenry felt the same.
For in the darkest hours, the average man had only those stories. Actual news was scarce and often no more well thought-of than our own modern journalists. There were known victories and losses to be sure, but the telling changed from campfire to campfire. Most of our histories as we know them are written by elites, but the common man had neither the learning nor the proximity to know what was happening in Boston or in Lexington. They had word of mouth, and "a friend of my cousin who lives near the Delaware". The tales grew larger and the nights more fearful, but the terrors were held at bay because they had Washington. He was the hope and salvation of the common man even as he led the armies from one ruinous encounter to the next. Above all, Washington was theirs, and there was a surety that in the end Washington would succeed because he could do no other. They placed their faith in his hands as they suffered, and afterwards as the success of the war finally came to be known. And in doing so they unknowingly gave this man of legends the single greatest gift possible. The men and women of the nascent United States gave George Washington a chance to live up to, and beyond, the fanciful stories told of him.
Make no mistake, Washington could have been King with a word. Total authority, power without end for his entire natural life. And yet, a man that people would follow bleeding barefoot through ice and snow, refused the level of power offered and rejected the permanency it could have contained. The history of mankind is replete with actors who have attempted to gather total power and its trappings to themselves, but there is only one who was given it all and opened his hands to give it immediately back. This created the still-abiding transfer of power we all take part in every four years, the quiet revolutions of intent, the freedoms that are a birthright of every child in this land. George Washington created the very concept of what it means to be an American and American exceptionalism itself by an act of personal will that is staggering. He simply stood up, gracefully turned, and walked away from a kingdom. Thereby weaving the very fabric of the American story we all share.
George Washington was and remains the greatest President ever, as without him the Presidency as we know it would not and could not exist -- nor would America itself.
Happy Independence day.
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