Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Our George

W itness, ye sons of tyrant's black womb,
A nd see his Excellence victorious come!
S erene, majestic, see he gains the field!
H is heart is tender, while his arms are steel'd.
I ntent on virtue, and his cause so fair,
N ow treats his captive with a parent's care!
G reatness of soul his ev'ry action shows,
T hus virtue from celestial bounty flows,
O ur GEORGE, by heaven destin'd to command,
N ow strikes the British yoke with prosp'rous hand.

That bit of acrostic doggerel was signed only by "A Young Lady." One sees a carefully folded letter in a small, fine hand pressed on the editor of the Pennsylvania "Evening Post," who passed it along to the lead-blackened fingers of the typos and ran it in his columns on Jan. 7, 1777.

The "tender heart" that "treats his captive with a parent's care" is the core image. Young Lady probably was inspired by Washington's victories a few weeks earlier at Trenton and Princeton, whereafter the American rebels found themselves in possession of their first large crop of prisoners of war.

Washington made a point of ordering them treated well. That stood in contrast to the British and Hessians, who massacred wounded rebels and had tossed their prisoners from the New York battles of 1776 into squalid prison ship hulks in Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay. Some 12,000 died in the floating hells, their bodies rowed ashore daily for shallow burials. Walt Whitman, in his youth, would find their rotten bones and caved-in coffins amid the shifting sand of the Brooklyn shore.

Whitman, like most of his generation, absorbed the Revolution as a secular religion with Washington as its god. He would have understood Young Lady's mind, even if he eschewed her meter. He wrote of Washington as "one pure, upright character, living as a beacon in history." To him, Washington, before Lincoln arose, was the tender, loving father-figure he sought. In one poem he has Washington kissing his generals on the cheek in tearful farewell -- an image about as likely, given Washington's steely nature and character, as the cherry-tree chopping incident.

Fast-forward almost 200 years, from Walt Whitman walking the bone-strewn Brooklyn sands to an enraged Rep. John Murtha speaking with the authority of a career military man against the present American war. Murtha may not make the best sense, and his suggested policies are dreadful. But you ignore his righteous rage at your peril, because he does represent something in modern America. He's a voice not just of the military -- which, since the end of the draft has become increasingly a small, hereditary caste in America -- but of the people who still believe in the American ideals as living, viable things.

Out amid the deer-hunter counties and boarded-up coal mines of Murtha's Appalachian Pennsylvania dwell the true heirs of the Young Lady poet and of Whitman.


Murtha, even before he made himself the public veteran voice of the anti-Iraq War movement, publicly announced his revulsion at the revelations of Abu Ghraib. Furthermore, he said then, and has said since, that this incident, more than any one other, helped drop the wind out of the sails of his generally conservative, pro-military district in Appalachian Pennsylvania.

His constituents, after all, experienced it at uncomfortably close range.

The congressman's Western Pennsylvania district includes hometowns of several members of the 372nd Military Police Company, based in Cresaptown, Md. One member of the unit has pleaded guilty to abuse charges stemming from Abu Ghraib; three are facing courts-martial and three more are awaiting hearings to determine if they will proceed to courts-martial.

Murtha said he passed along to Casey a number of e-mails he's received from soldiers or their families. He would not release their contents or even their general details, but said they referred to matters "that weren't real pleasant."

Anyone who participated in abuse at Abu Ghraib should be punished, Murtha said. The abuse has "destroyed the reputation" of the United States, he said, undermining its standing in the world as a moral and civil rights leader.

When he says this, he means it. It doesn't ring hollow, as it does when uttered by many others in Murtha's party who have been dutiously informing the world for most of their adult lives that America is a violent hegemony-bent land of sham morals and bloated patriotic crypto-fascists. They've beat that one drum about war crime genocide at Wounded Knee and Hiroshima and Vietnam for too long.

Murtha, on the other hand, represents the people who mean it when they salute the flag. Somewhere in his political ancestry is "Young Lady," upright at her desk, by candlelight, with a Philadelphia winter blowing outside, puzzling out the rhymes and believing, really believing, in the virtues of George Washington. Believing that they were what justified the revolution, and that those virtues, expressed at that moment, were being built into the edifice of a new nation.


Americans still take that mythology seriously, some of us. Military honor is crucial to it. It is true, of course, that Washington's soldiers protected the captive Hessians from the Philadelphia mob. It also is true that the colonials in arms sometimes swapped barbarity for barbarity with their enemies, plundered and raped, and they occasionally tortured and butchered POWs -- especially loyalists and runaway slaves who had joined the British.

The decision an observer makes is, which to notice, and which to make the center of the story.

Washington stood for generations as a living example of American virtues, a monument in flesh before he became one in granite or marble. The nation chose him to bear the mantle of the American way, and he accepted the role. To understand the founders of American democracy it is not enough to stand in the present and look back at 1787. You have to stand where the founders stood, and then look back, from there, at the past they knew. In trying to create a free republican nation, they had few models.

But the founders had a rich lode of national models in the histories of the Roman republic and the Greek city states of antiquity. These were not obscure subjects: the founders were steeped in classical learning through their shared education. They had all grown up in the same method of schooling that had predominated in the Western world since the Middle Ages, a long litany of Greek and Roman authors, read in their original languages.

They thought through problems, both personal and political, in classical terms. The classical authors provided the founders with their symbolic language when they wrote to one another. There are hundreds of instances of classical analogies in the generation of the American Revolution, from the designs on the national seal to the name of the national Capitol.

And they knew that all the classical republics had strong mythologies of their founders -- Athenian Theseus, Romulus in Rome, Lycurgus the lawgiver of Sparta. All the old republics built up public religions of hero-myths about supermen or demi-gods who taught the city-states how to live, how to grip the dangerous fire of freedom. Even the modern republics had such stories -- William Tell is one example.

Cincinnatus is another. He was a Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow. Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the founders.

And when George Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati. This was the classical idea of "virtue" -- defined by Gertrude Himmelfarb as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private."

Washington knew he would have to play such a role in America's history. He modeled himself on Cato the Younger. His favorite play was Joseph Addison's "Cato," based closely on Plutarch's "Lives" -- the ancient world's ultimate book of virtues embodied in leaders. Washington ordered "Cato" performed at Valley Forge for the soldiers; he often quoted Cato (or his speeches from the play) at key moments. Historians who have studied his handling of the Newburgh mutiny of 1783, a key crisis in early American freedom, discovered it was directly lifted from Addison's play. [Act III, Scene 5, if you have a script; see Carl J. Richard, "The Founders and the Classics," pp.50-59].

The process that began in Washington's life snowballed upon his death in 1799. "America produced a flood of mourning pictures in many different genres: paintings, prints, sculptures, textiles, rings, ceramics. ... These images of George Washington became icons in every sense. They were reproduced in lithographs and chromos, hung on the walls of American homes, and regarded with a reverence that other people reserved for religious images." [David Hackett Fischer, "Liberty and Freedom," p.181]


Chief among the icons was a pamphlet, later expanded into a book: Mason Locke Weems's "Life and Memorable Actions of General George Washington," published a year after Washington's death. The Chesapeake clergyman and itinerant bible salesman wrote a lively, if overblown, prose, and told a series of stories meant to display Washington's "Great Virtues." It was one of many pamphlet biographies written mainly for the young, but it was the one that endured. And it set the general squarely in a classical context.

"Washington was as pious as Numa, just as Aristides, temperate as Apictetus, patriotic as Regulus. In giving public trusts, impartial as Severus; in victory, modest as Scipio -- prudent as Fabius, rapid as Marcellus, undaunted as Hannibal, as Cincinnatus disinterested, to liberty firm as Cato, and respectful of the law as Socrates."

Like the ancient Greeks, Weems' story turns history into mythology and mythology into history. Some of the stories were true, some were passed around as true in the oral culture, a few perhaps were entirely fabricated by Weems. All were embellished by him and hammered into morality tales to teach citizenship to young republicans. Virtue, not veracity, was the essential thing.

And so we get Washington barking the cherry tree, handling the school bullies, in the face of Braddock's defeat, refusing a duel, apologizing when wrong.

The mythology still lived in 1860. Both sides in the Civil War claimed to uphold the true American values -- that is, the Revolutionary values. Not just their political rhetoric but the letters and diaries of soldiers. Leaving aside specific attacks on tyrants or traitors, it is impossible to tell North and South apart when they write positively about what they believe they are fighting for: "those institutions which were achieved for us by our glorious revolution ... in order that they may be perpetuated to whose who may come after" ... "the same principles which fired the hearts of our ancestors in the revolutionary struggle" ... "the perpetuity of Republican principles on this continent depends upon our success." Which was the soldier from Alabama, which from Connecticut, which from Tennessee?

James McPherson explored the motivations of Civil War soldiers in the wake of the Vietnam War:

A veteran who became a student of the Civil War after his tour in Vietnam was awestruck by the dedication of soldiers in that earlier conflict. In all his Vietnam experience he had met only one American "who had the same 'belief structure' as the Civil War soldiers." In Vietnam "the soldier fought for his own survival, not a cause. The prevailing attitude was: do your time ... keep your head down, stay out of trouble, get out alive." How different was the willingness of Civil War soldiers to court death in a conflict whose casualty rate was several times greater than for American soldiers in Vietnam. "I find that kind of devotion ... mystifying." ["For Cause and Comrades," pp. 4-5]

Of course McPherson, and perhaps his unnamed student, had their own generational attitudes toward the war in Vietnam. But it seems the sea-change in American attitude was something that took place before Vietnam; World War II soldiers, who had cause to take up patriotic themes without embarrassment, tended to have no patience for such talk. The prevailing attitude wasn't the same as Vietnam, but perhaps was closer to it than it was to the Civil War: "Do your part, keep your head down, get home in one piece."


There came a time, after the Civil War, after the centennial of the Revolution decade, after everyone with any living memory of it was dead, that thoughtful Americans could look ahead to a fuller, more mature contemplation of their history. By 1885 a majestic national historian like John B. McMaster, with a huge audience at his knee, could write about Washington the man, in ways more remarkable than the myth, and ready to step forth from behind the statuary:

No other face is so familiar to us. His name is written all over the map of our country. We have made of his birthday a national feast. The outlines of his biography are known to every school-boy in the land. Yet his true biography is still to be prepared. General Washington is known to us, and President Washington. But George Washington is an unknown man. When at last he is set before us in his habit as he lived, we shall read less of the cherry-tree and more of the man. Naught surely that is heroic will be omitted, but side by side with what is heroic will appear much that is commonplace. We shall behold the great commander repairing defeat with marvellous celerity, healing the dissentions of his officers, and calming the passions of his mutinous troops. But we shall also hear his oaths, and see him in those terrible outbursts of passion to which Mr. Jefferson has alluded, and one of which Mr. Lear has described. ... We shall know him as the cold and forbidding character with whom no fellow-man ever ventured to live on close and familiar terms. We shall respect and honor him for being, not the greatest of generals, not the wisest of statesmen, not the most saintly of his race, but a man with may human frailties and much common sense, who rose in the fullness of time to be the political deliverer of our country. ["History of the People of the United States," vol. II, pp.452-3]

And it is possible to look into the details of Washington's biography and see what might have been made of him for a modern America. Washington held himself aloof from his peers, as he felt befitted his role. He endured the familiarity of men who sought to treat him as an equal, but he never returned anything for it. Within the ordered social arrangements, he had few men who could be called friends. Yet one close companion was his able wife, Martha. She was in every sense his adviser and confidante. He married her though his heart was on another woman (Sally Fairfax). Stoic Washington never cost his nation a scandal. It would have been unthinkable.

Another who could be called a friend of the "cold and forbidding character" was his slave, William Lee, whom he bought in 1767. Washington called him not his "manservant," as was the custom, but "my fellow." Lee shared abilities in Washington's great first love: horses and riding. Lee was a brilliant rider and often the only man capable of keeping up with Washington in his fearless, breakneck pace on a northern Virginia hunt. Paintings showed them together in battle, and Washington emancipated him after the war.

Washington had slaves. Very well; every founder but Hamilton was touched by the taint of slavery. Yet Washington also managed the remarkable act of emancipating all his slaves and providing for them. There is a letter from him to Phillis Wheatley, considered the first important American black writer, thanking her for some verses, full of praise and courtesy and closing with an invitation to visit him.

He did not much care for immigrants, as a class, but he wrote of them, "If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa or Europe. They may be Mohammedans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists."

In all things, Washington was ahead of his time in that great modern value, tolerance.

But modern American intelligensia doesn't have Washington the complex man-hero, Washington the flawed and tolerant. Instead, we merely tore down the old myths, the old virtue-stories, and replaced them with -- nothing.

The 1920s was the decade America became modern. The New York musical, the historic preservation movement, Hollywood and the automobile all came of age. By 1929, five-sixths of the world's automobile production was in the U.S.; one car for every five people. Real per-capita income rose, millions of working people acquired savings accounts, life insurance, and their own homes for the first time.

Yet it also was the decade of Prohibition's nasty chaos, xenophobic Americanism and the second incarnation of the Klan. The Ten Commandments displays in courthouses and town halls, now subject of acrimonious lawsuits, often had been added deliberately in the post-World War I years to edifices that had stood for generations without anyone thinking they needed such stern brazen reminders.

Intellectuals veered left in the 1920s, but that was a consequence, not a cause. At heart they were not moving leftward so much as moving away from the traditional American narrative of values, which they felt had been discredited by the repressive hyper-patriotism of World War I and the vulgar middle-class prosperity of the '20s.

Edmund Wilson in the depths of the Great Depression celebrated the young intellectuals "who had grown up in the Big Business era and had always resented its barbarism, its crowding out of everything they cared about." For them, the Depression years "were not depressing but stimulating. One couldn't help being exhilarated at the sudden, unexpected collapse of the stupid gigantic fraud. It gave us a new sense of freedom; and it gave us a new sense of power."

Scott Fitzgerald put it bluntly in 1932: "The New Generation had matured to find all gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken; all they knew was that America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history." Another author, in a polemical book published the same year, summed it up like this: "Having surrendered idealism for the sake of prosperity, the 'practical men' bankrupted us on both of them."

Other intellectuals before had stepped outside the American mainstream and criticized it as narrowly violent, materialistic, crass, obsessed with false gods and rotten ideals -- Thoreau, Henry James. In the 1930s, this became a prevailing theme. Since then, it has only increased in fury. So much of the literary and academic class is fixated on American evil, to the degree of seeing nothing but it. Theirs is not the mature, whole vision foreseen by McMaster, but an infantile and poisonous replacement for Parson Weems.

They seem never to have advanced past the moment they learned Washington did not, in fact, skip a silver dollar across the Potomac. Somebody lied to them. Because the myths were not real, the virtues are not. America to them has been a perpetual disappointment. They pitched the whole project and set up a rival pantheon of "heroes" from some truly awful raw material -- from John Brown to Stalin to the Black Panthers. Would Che Guevara's life hold up as well as Washington's, if raked with the same historical scrutiny?


The "American scene" paintings of Grant Wood (1891—1942) are gentle satires. "Parson Weems' Fable" (1939, above) is based on Charles Willson Peale's portrait of himself lifting the curtain on his own museum in Philadelphia in which he sought to display and classify all the rich natural life of America. In Wood's painting, the parson lifts the curtain on a scene in which the cherries are as artificial as the curtain tassles. There are the slaves, too -- the embarrassing fact, in the background, and there is little George, with the head of old President George right off the 3-cent stamp. The picture is squared off and lit like a theater stage. Parson Weems's fable is a lie told to teach that lies are wrong. Wood enjoys this paradox and gently mocks it.

But much of the intellectual class in America has turned so hard and vicious in its contempt that it does not even recognize Wood's satire for what it is. Wood's paintings, such as "American Gothic," have been used as the basis of more brutal satire.


Such as here, on the cover of the book in which Ward Churchill's infamous essay is printed, comparing the Sept. 11 victims in the World Trade Center to Nazi Jew-killers. If Parson Weems missed the irony in telling a lie to teach the virtue of truth, Churchill, or his book designer, reveal their folly in tearing up a straw man of satire and thinking they are shooting arrows into the heart of Evil Amerikkka.

In fact, Weems was wiser than generally is recognized. In his version of the cherry tree story, according to Garry Wills ("Cincinnatus," p.53), the focus is on the father's wisdom in recognizing the courage of truth-telling. "It was in this way," Weems writes, "by interesting at once both his heart and head, that Mr. Washington conducted George with great ease and pleasure along the happy paths of virtue." It was a parable of parenting. Later retellings, especially in school readers, turned it into the advertisement for truth-telling that Wood satirized.

Washington was no dreamy idealist. He merged practical policy with the moral high ground whenever possible. In treating his Hessian prisoners well after Princeton, he had a strategic purpose. He wrote to the Pennsylvania authorities to whom he had sent the German POWs and directed them to "canton them in the German Counties."

If proper pains are taken to convince them, how preferable the situation of their Countrymen, the Inhabitants of those Counties is to theirs, I think they may be sent back in the Spring, so fraught with a love of Liberty[,] and property too, that they may create a disgust to the Service among the remainder of the foreign Troops and widen that Breach which is already opened between them and the British.

Canny! And as late as World War II, America still used such a policy on captured enemy POWs. What made Washington important is that he deliberately chose the virtuous path in the times when it didn't suit the immediate interest. His lesson by example was doing the right thing even when it went against expedience -- that cherry tree again.

Salman Rushdie, recently pondering the death of national identity in Europe, hits on something Americans can benefit to remember:

When we, as individuals, pick and mix cultural elements for ourselves, we do not do so indiscriminately, but according to our natures. Societies, too, must retain the ability to discriminate, to reject as well as to accept, to value some things above others, and to insist on the acceptance of those values by all their members. This is the question of our time: how does a fractured community of multiple cultures decide what values it must share in order to cohere, and how can it insist on those values even when they clash with some citizens’ traditions and beliefs? ... But the questions of core freedoms and primary loyalties can’t be ducked. No society, no matter how tolerant, can expect to thrive if its citizens don’t prize what their citizenship means — if, when asked what they stand for as Frenchmen, as Indians, as Britons, they cannot give clear replies.

We can smile now at the deliberate attempt by Weems and others to build an American mythology in parallel motion to republican Rome and ancient Greece. It seems a quaint excess, at best, to us. We now recognize that it is superfulous to modern minds, modern democracies. We can excuse the Founders, and dispense with their fairy tales.

Or can we? The myths certainly served a purpose in their day. For generations, Washington's artificial example discouraged open displays of political ambition in America. Candidates were expected to be called to office, not to chase it. And if ultimately they developed a skill at furiously politicking while appearing to sit at ease on their porches and watch their crops grow, the model of Washington at least kept them from being too blatant about it. It was only in Andrew Jackson's time that Americans realized what a powerful position they had created in their presidency, and the revelation shocked many men. The restraining model of Washington had, in large part, kept a check on baldfaced expression of power.

More important was the especially strong influence Washington's virtuous image held in the early republic among the officers of the Revolution, among the Southern aristocracy and Northern men of wealth -- the elite class that clustered in the Federalist and Whig parties. Histories of other republics show their fragility when young, and the temptation of just such classes to try to correct the excesses of democracy, and the wisdom of making it a point of pride among them to not intrude.

All this Washington accomplished, with the help of Parson Weems and the others who fed his mythology. And here it is the juicy situation of the modern conservative to protest on behalf of the pagan-based mythologies and classical virtues of American history.

Can a people live without myths? Can a nation survive without virtues?