I have often reflected that the causes of success or failure of men depend upon their … character, and [are] not a matter of choice. – Niccolo Machiavelli
He was there, tall and imposing, and upright with his natural grace and nobility. In front of the his men, he naturally commanded attention, his speech had seemingly come to close.
But now he hesitated. He stopped. This was unusual for him.
They knew him so well. They had followed him, through thick and thin, for years. But they were angry. They wanted to revolt. They hadn’t been paid; they had listen to his prepared speech; they had heard similar excuses before. Most of them still not convinced. He knew this.
He was at loss to what to do.
In a last desperate act, he pulled a letter from his pocket. Something was wrong, however.
He tried to read the letter, stumbling with his words, then, hopelessly staring at it.
He hestitated again. He, again, reach to a pocket, pulling out a pair of eyeglasses.
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.”
Most had never seen these eyeglasses, something only General George Washington intimates had ever seen him wear. Humbled and embarrassed, many of the officers were now in tears. For, if the speech had not already destroyed the revolt, this act assured its demise. Washington left the meeting. The officers unanimously voted to wait for their overdue wages, and they would not “retire to some unsettled country” and leave Congress without an army.
“On other occasions he had been supported by the exertions of the army and the countenance of his friends,” said Captain Samuel Shaw, “but in this he stood single and alone.”
With that George Washington continued lead and help found the United States of America.
The point of this story is that George Washington, could not help himself, but be himself, and be leader even at his weakest moment. His officers followed the man, George Washington, because of who he was.
The American continent was rich with natural resources, and the colonists had always been vigorous and resourceful. The distance from England to the North American continent was great; the sea voyage took weeks and was at best risky. Over the decades the American colonists had of sheer necessity developed an independent and self-reliant spirit. The Americans, many more loyal to their own colonies than to the British Crown, had spent years gradually increasing their political and economic independence from the island Empire. Perhaps it was inevitable that they would eventually form a new nation fully independent of their British forbearers. And perhaps, given the spirit of the times, it was also inevitable that the new nation would embody a novel and daring experiment in political and social reform.
Finally, in 1775, discontent erupted into rebellion, and soon the rebellion was transformed into outright revolution. The Declaration of Independence was published, a new nation was declared into being, and the War of Independence began.
It was seven long years before the war ended and the new American nation was recognized by Great Britain. With the war over, the patriots and visionaries who had labored so long and risked so much to establish the new nation faced another struggle. This one was a struggle of vision and ideas, pride and passions, this time concerning the final, radical architecture of the new government. They had decided to divide the functions of government into a set of “checks and balances” to ensure that power could never be concentrated in the hands of a rapacious few. But how many divisions should there be so that there could be no take-over? Might not too much division destroy the effectiveness of the government? Should the legislature, charged with making policy and enacting law, be the predominant force in government? Or should it be the presidency, whose function was to enforce policy and laws but never to make them? How could we be certain that a powerful President would not establish a dictatorship by force of arms? What should be the relationship between the federal government and the individual states? Should there be a loose confederation of strongly independent entities, or a supergovernment overseeing weak individual governments?
Debate and then argument over these matters was in full swing long before the events of 1775. But they were very difficult issues; in fact they still are. Consensus was slow in coming and even then far from complete. Those struggling with the task were overall a brilliant group of men, and deeply dedicated to finding the best possible answers.
But they were also a turbulent group of very independent thinkers. The new government would embody the ideas of certain members while the hopes and visions of others would inevitably be discarded, and none of these dedicated and visionary men was likely to abandon his convictions easily. Pride was inevitably at risk, but so was their concern about the well-being of the new nation and its people. Some of these patriots would never be able to accept with equanimity having their views discarded.
These men did largely agree on one point: that their passionate disputes threatened the new nation with fatal disunity even before it could be fully born. Failure to achieve consensus would destroy the delicate political stability of the new nation and might easily mean the loss of that wondrous prize for which they had struggled so painfully and, for some, at such terrible cost. The first President of the United States must therefore be someone who could stand impartially aside from their arguments, and he had to be someone who had earned their trust and their loyalty. The man who would become the United States’ first President must be someone with an unimpeachable reputation for integrity and honor, for patience and determination, for the impartial wisdom of Solomon. Fortunately there was at least one additional item upon which the men who shaped the early course of this country could agree: they knew just the person to take on the task.
Washington was a military hero. As General of the fledgling Continental Army during the war for independence from Britain he had demonstrated great courage and stolid tenacity. Some had criticized him for being too cautious as a general, but his careful Guardian generalship was perfect for the military situation he faced. Washington knew from the beginning, as many did not, that the Continental Army was not an organization likely to win many military victories. He also understood that it was far more important to keep his army intact and in the field than it was to win exciting but indecisive victories. His Guardian’s caution and logistical sense were perfect for the task.
Washington needed no elaborate strategy for fighting the British. Instead of waging many pitched battles or trying to outmaneuver the enemy, he traded space for time. He retreated when necessary in the face of a stronger enemy, he counterattacked against isolated British outposts or detachments where conditions promised success. He generally avoided major battles with his better trained and equipped enemy. Instead he harassed the edge of the British forces, withdrawing into the woods when they counterattacked. In this way he set out to make the conflict too wearisome and too expensive for the British, a war of supply lines (lengthy for the British, short for him) rather than one of large-scale, violent combats. His most significant victories came when he besieged the enemy, for instance, walling them up in New York City, until they withdrew. These sieges were essentially logistical, not tactical operations: the Monitor [Supervisor or Inspector Guardian] is best at battles of supply, not of maneuver. [Presidential Temperament]
“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain
what I consider the most enviable of all titles,
the character of an honest man.”
— George Washington