George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) was known in his lifetime as “the father of his country.” The title was not undeserved. As I wrote a few days ago, his birthday used to be a profound CIVIC holiday, a day to reflect on Washington’s virtues in furtherance of our civil society.
Statue of Washington reading the newspaper (Yorktown)
That sounds hoary and clichéd, and my geezer credentials are not diminished by it, but I always “got” that, even back in grade school where I quickly realized that the Washington Myths were just so much BS thrown at the gullible. No, he didn’t chop down a frigging cherry tree and he didn’t throw a silver dollar across the Potomac. But they ARE legitimate distillations into myth of actual characteristics, and we could desperately use those virtues today.
Consider the parallel news as I celebrate Washington’s Birthday, alone among my peers and fellow citizens: the Trump Administration is ramping up to full-scale roundups of “aliens.” They believe that whatever you want to do to transgender kids (and we are talking a miniscule number here, but when it comes to numbers versus ideology, the GOPs are consistent in their desire to remove the mote from their fellows’ eyes. No mote too small, no plank too cruel, that’s their motto.) And, while they’re beating up on transgender children in schools. they reaffirm their allegiance to the torture palace of extra-territorial, extra-legal Guantanamo.
Washington, ironically, set the bar on torture (We don’t torture. Period) during the Revolutionary War, and until mad George the Third and Dick “Darth” Cheney usurped the White House, that WAS American policy for more than two centuries. Lucky for Trump, Rupert gave everyone “24” and Jack Bauer proved time and again that in a modern age, the niceties of NOT torturing prisoners, casual acquaintances and TV viewers were not luxuries that a constantly-peeing-their-pants-in-fear America could afford.
My friend Jim Terr recommended a biography of Washington to me, and I highly recommend it, (as did the Pulitzer Prize committee) which, my Kindle informs me, I purchased on December 3, 2013:
Washington: A Life*
by Ron Chernow (Author)
Winner of the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
[* Hardcover: 904 pages
Publisher: Penguin Press (October 5, 2010)
I pass it on as a way of paying it forward, and will only dwell on the “new” Washington revealed in its pages, since Chertnow not only was the beneficiary of a wealth of “new research” but succeeds in fleshing out the great marble statue that Washington has tended to be in our history.
For instance, it’s well known that Washington came to prominence for leading the retreat of the disastrous Braddock expedition in 1755, as Braddock (commanding the largest American expedition in the French and Indian War) was ambushed at the Battle of the Monongahela, and killed.
Less well known is that Washington himself basically STARTED the French and Indian War albeit not intentionally.
That sort of thing.
Or, that Washington and his friends saw the Potomac as what became the Erie Canal: the way to get the raw goods from the vast, fertile Ohio River Valley to the Eastern seaboard and finished goods back the other way over the geographical stumbling block of the Appalachians. (The Continental Congress paid off Revolutionary soldiers in trans-Appalachian “land” and Washington was himself a considerable owner.) But the Potomac was “owned” and bisected by several states, and there was no central authority who could pass on the Potomac Project. And that ended up kicking off a little “tea party” on the Articles of Confederation called the “Constitutional Convention.” (see The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbach, 2005 for more on this).
I wrote this in “John Roberts, Too Clever by Half,” 28 June 2012:
For several years after the Revolution, Congress was the sole federal government. This wasn’t a big deal, because each state thought of itself as a separate nation. And chaos reigned. Different weights and measures, different taxes, duties, tolls. Different MONEY. And, of course, if a river was the boundary, GOOD LUCK trying to conduct commerce ON that river.
Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard
Now this is important, because America grows almost entirely by waterway until we hit the Big Muddy, the Missouri River. We have two huge problems, as well. First, the Spanish hold New Orleans (until Napoleon takes it back) and they’re not interested in allowing any ships to travel down the Mississippi and make it to through the Gulf of Mexico to the East Coast with goods.
So, the Mississippi is pretty well closed off to American trade.
Secondly, and the reason why the first is such a huge problem, is that the Appalachian Mountains form a nearly impassable barrier for hauling cargo in any kind of profitable manner. The East Coasterners can’t trade with the Northwest Territory (what is now Ohio, Indiana and Illinois), and vice versa.
See the barrier that the Appalachians create?
George Washington, like most Continental soldiers, was paid by a grateful nation in NW Territory land, which the several states had donated (their original Royal charters having given them all the land West from the Atlantic coast to any theoretical West Coast. You can still see one of the lines to this very day, if you’ll trace the line from Arizona’s northern border across all the way to the southern border of Virginia and the northern border of North Carolina.)
And, sitting on his porch in Mount Vernon, Washington and George Mason his neighbor, and others who came by to meet with the Great Man hatched a scheme to use the Potomac as a great water route inland. He had seen the country when he was a surveyor, and had made trips to his fertile lands in the Ohio River Valley, which he couldn’t grow anything on, even though he had huge land holdings, courtesy of the Continental Congress.
The land of the Northwest Territory was the payment of most Revolutionary War veterans, since congress’ powers under the Articles of Confederation were laughably weak. They had virtually no means to raise money; couldn’t levy taxes, etc. and the land was donated so that Congress could pay off the inevitable war debts, including the loans John Adams had negotiated with the bankers of Holland, just as important as Franklin’s securing the military aid and recognition of France. (France’s war debts, would, by the by, directly lead to the French Revolution, which was not, ironically, happy with OURS. We nearly went to war with Revolutionary France during the John Adams administration.)
Washington and his friends hatched this plan to unite the nation commercially and make themselves wealthy in the process. Or, should I say, wealthIER.
And they actually DID that. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Photo by author © 2008
So, Washington and his pals hatch this scheme, but there’s a little problem. The Potomac is claimed by several states, and the separate laws make it impossible for them to do what they need to do to make this plan work: They will barge goods up the Ohio to the base of the mountains. Overland it, and then, using a series of locks, down the east face of the Appalachians to the Potomac and the Atlantic Ocean. Alexandria, Virginia will become the greatest port in America, and put New York to shame.
And all of these powerful men agree, enlisting their friends in every state, that they’ve got to come up with a new form of social contract that will allow interstate commerce. That is the original intent of the founders. The Constitutional Convention was called so that interstate commerce could turn America into a powerhouse of industry and trade without stepping all over ourselves in so doing, as was happening as different states negotiated trade agreements, treaties, etc.
The Constitutional Convention was called, and we all know the result. The meetings were held in secret in Independence Hall, and the doors and windows closed and guards posted, with all taking an oath of secrecy not to divulge what was happening. James Madison, who would later be President during the War of 1812 was the official Secretary, and Washington’s man, and it is from his notes that we have any idea of what happened.
Long protracted political struggle, not unlike the health care debate of 2010.
OK. Constitution enacted, they go ahead with the Potomac plan, but even though they get it going, it takes time and is never really efficient. Meanwhile, the Erie Canal is dug and puts the Potomac route out of commission, and cements New York City’s and NOT Alexandria’s commercial and maritime future.
Alexandria, Virginia became a Washington D.C. suburb
But we DO get the Constitution. This is what Ruth Bader Ginsburg refers to in her Concurrence on today’s Health Care Decision, when she says* [emphasis added]:
The Commerce Clause, it is widely acknowledged, “was the Framers’ response to the central problem that gave rise to the Constitution itself.” […] Under the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution’s precursor, the regulation of commerce was left to the States. This scheme proved unworkable, because the individual States, understandably focused on their own economic interests, often failed to take actions critical to the success of the Nation as a whole. […]
What was needed was a “national Government . . . armed with a positive & compleat authority in all cases where uniform measures are necessary.” (James Madison). See also Letter from George Washington to James Madison (Nov. 30, 1785): “We are either a United people, or we are not. If the former, let us, in all matters of general concern act as a nation, which ha[s] national objects to promote, and a national character to support.”
The Framers’ solution was the Commerce Clause, which, as they perceived it, granted Congress the authority to enact economic legislation “in all Cases for the general Interests of the Union, and also in those Cases to which the States are separately incompetent.”
[* Note: I have stripped out the legal citations and footnotes to make it legible to the average reader.]
My story is based on a book I reviewed a few years ago, The Grand Idea: George Washington’s Potomac and the Race to the West by Joel Achenbachkl, a Washington Post staff writer. I unreservedly recommend it. Taut and factual.
Statue of Washington outside Independence Hall,
Photo by Hart Williams© 2008
.That was 2012. Now it’s 2017.
What Washington gave us, finally, was his INTEGRITY. That quality alone single-handedly managed to save the Continental Army, and, over and over again, the United States Government.
1917 US dollar note (Click for larger)
Sad that it’s fallen so far out of fashion, isn’t it?
And, on this Washington’s Birthday, it is a sad reflection on Washington’s integrity to just look at the headlines. Go on and look. You’ll be sorry, but it will be a good meditation for you.
As a citizen.
As someone who cares about the American Idea.
Now, I’m going to go off and chop down a cherry tree.