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By George, Washington Is Still the Indispensable Man of American History

February 20, 2012 - 6:00pm

Many liberals fall into the odd trap of arguing that politics and government can change everything, while insisting that individual leaders cannot make much of a difference.

For example, in my historiography course at Trinity College, one of the history professors -- a strident leftist I avoided like the plague during my years there -- actually insisted during a guest lecture that it did not really matter who won the presidential election of 1860 in the general scheme of things. Even as a naive undergrad, I knew the professor was clearly wrong. The other candidates from the 1860 election-- Stephen Douglas, John Breckinridge and John Bell -- would have all handled the secession crisis in ways different from Abraham Lincoln.

The best example in American history that an individual leader can make a positive difference is George Washington. Its hard to imagine the Revolution and the first years of the new republic turning out as well as they did without his leadership.

Its easy to lump the Founding Fathers together. As historian Barbara Tuchman and others have noted over the years, they truly were the most talented generation of political leaders ever assembled. But they were divided over a number of different issues -- the role of the federal government, trade, the power of the executive branch, the role of the judicial branch, what powers to ally with, how much democracy should be tolerated in a democratic republic, slavery and many other matters.

Washington provided something to rally around. He was, as biographer James Thomas Flexner noted, the indispensable man in the founding of the United States.

Look at the other leading American generals in the war.

  • While a purist libertarian like Murray Rothbard could admire him, Charles Lee proved to be an ineffective commander, and his conduct at the battle of Monmouth and in captivity led to accusations of treason.
  • Horatio Gates did little to win the battle of Saratoga and his incompetence led to his army being routed at Camden.
  • Benedict Arnolds name remains a watchword for treason.
  • Benjamin Lincoln was a pleasant enough fellow who was in over his head as an army commander -- leading to the surrender of his army at Charleston.
  • During his command of the Department of the South, Robert Howe, who was something of a libertine, spent more time fighting with American political leaders than he did against the British.
  • Before his stroke in 1779, Israel Putnam showed serious flaws as a commander as the New York campaign progressed.
  • While his home state of New Hampshire loved him, John Sullivan had little success in the field.
  • William Alexander, a wealthy New Jersey resident who claimed to be an earl and demanded to be called Lord Stirling, was a solid general but a notorious drinker.
  • Henry Knox was a solid artillery commander but he was only 25 when the war began.

The only one of Washingtons generals who even came close to his abilities as a soldier and as a leader was Nathaniel Greene -- but its hard to imagine that fighting Quaker from Rhode Island doing as well as his chief.

Washingtons leadership also helped provide unity as the first generation of American political figures tore into each other over everything ranging from federalism to trade to foreign affairs. Sometimes the heated debates between the leading political figures led to major battles: Thomas Jefferson versus Alexander Hamilton; John Adams versus Jefferson; Jefferson versus Aaron Burr; Sam Adams versus Fisher Ames; Ames versus James Madison -- and we all know where the Burr-Hamilton clash led. The truth is, the Founding Fathers often found very little to agree on -- besides the importance of George Washingtons leadership.

Not only does Wednesday mark the 280th anniversary of Washingtons birth, it marks the 150th anniversary of Jefferson Davis taking the oath of office for his full term as president of the Confederate States of America. Davis and other Confederate leaders scheduled the inauguration on Washingtons birthday for a reason -- just as they put him in the seal of their fledgling nation. They believed they were fighting for his legacy. Robert E. Lee, the best general of the Confederacy, considered Washington his personal hero -- and biographer Richard McCaslin makes a convincing argument that Lee's admiration for Washington was one of the main driving forces of his life.

But just as the Confederates thought they were fighting for the legacy of the Founding Fathers, so did many who took up arms for the Union side. The mightiest name on earth, Abraham Lincoln said of the first man to hold his office. On that name an eulogy is expected. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name and in its naked, deathless splendor leave it shining on.

Lincoln would of course, invoke the Founding Fathers in his Senate contest with Douglas in 1858 and during his presidency.

It tells you something about Washingtons role in the American pantheon that both sides tried to claim him in the greatest dispute in the nations history.

It also tells you something that we marked Presidents Day on Monday -- as if most of us want to honor the likes of Jimmy Carter, Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan. Light-Horse Harry Lee, Roberts father, proclaimed in his memorial address for Washington that his old commander was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

Not anymore, apparently. If Christopher Columbus and Martin Luther King have their own days, so should George Washington -- who truly was indispensable for the launching of the American experiment.

Reach Kevin Derby at or at (850) 727-0859.

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