Wednesday, February 22, 2006

George Washington's Birthday

George Washington has had a mythic stature in our country's mind. In past centuries, he was revered as the Father of Our Country. Frankly, his patina probably kept people by the end of the 20th Century from imagining him as a real person. He was never one of my favorite presidents, to tell you the truth. But recent books and articles have begun to remedy that. What was it that made him so vital to our countrymen in his own time, and so revered for generations after?

From what I understand, at a time when Britain could not imagine the Colonies as more than that, George Washington was able to present to them an image of himself as a very regal leader of an increasingly real nation. It was this ability to REPRESENT, not only to the British, but also to his own countrymen, the possibility of a nation, with dignity equal to England's own, that made him so crucial at the moment of Revolution.

Washington did not seem to be a great general, although he certainly seemed to mature and learn as he went along. He did become a much better general by the end of the Revolustion. What he was absolutely peerless at, was leading men. George Washington seemed to know how to secure the faith and hopes of his very volunteer army, and to hold them to his vision. His wife was invaluable in this effort, apparently, but I do think that Washington himself was the key. He knew how to select officers and delegate authority. He showed trust and got it in return. When he gave his farewell address to his troops, I believe the weeping of his volunteers was quite genuine.

The formation of the Sons of Cincinnatus reflects the feelings at the time about Washington as a general and leader. He was the reincarnation of the Roman who left his farm to lead the Republic, but modestly retired rather than accept a crown. While books and articles seem to portray Washington as strikingly self-aware and willing to manipulate his image with the public, he used that image for the public good and did not take undue advantage of the trust that was given him. He served for two terms as President, did not make money off the position, and retired to Mount Vernon voluntarily, when he could very easilty have become President for life.

So, Happy Birthday, George! Nobody much is paying attention this year. I think better of you as I learn more, and look beyond that simpering cherry tree story. There is a good lesson here for librarians, I think. We all serve as figureheads in some way or other. We need to be aware of that function. We mean more than our private selves. George showed us the way. Let us learn!

More on George Washington at Wikipedia

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