Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Our greatest (and underappreciated) president

For last month's President's Day, the Gallup poll reported that Americans named Ronald Reagan the nation's greatest president, followed by Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. Whither the first president, the father of our country? The man famously euologized by Henry Lee as "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen," places no higher than seventh: when asked to choose the greater president of the two, Americans favor Lincoln by a wide margin over George Washington.
David Levine drawing
GW signature

Historians rate him higher (although results are mixed); yet, perhaps, it is somehow fitting that Washington is neglected. Lincoln's story, to be sure, is an extraordinary one: intelligent, thoughtful, and religious; master politician, rhetorician, and orator; martyred at the height of his success. Washington, a man of action and not of words, has never been a favorite of intellectuals. Two recent books--George Washington Remembers: Reflections on the French and Indian War and His Excellency: George Washington--offered scholar Garry Wills a chance to reflect upon the man in the March 10 issue of the New York Review of Books. Wills observes that George Washington was the incarnation of John Wayne, a myth who lived up to our ideal of strength, maturity, judgment, borne of the American frontier ethos. And how do we understand guys like that in meritocratic times?

Consider Thomas Jefferson, whose own mythology as the founding fathers' renaissance man cuts a stark contrast to the unflappable, more stolid Washington. From Jefferson's 1814 letter to Dr. Walter Jones,

His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though, not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. . . . But if deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstance, he was slow in re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York.

Jefferson, a thinking-man's favorite, slyly slights Washington's intellect. Wills focuses instead on a different sort of quickness, the man's physical strength--his nonpareil horsemanship was admired by all: one vivid story has Washington saving his mount from slipping on an icy hillside near the Delaware River by pulling the horse onto his feet by merely grabbing the mane and shifting his weight--but it is his superior judgment as well as his presence, his ability to inspire, in short, his leadership, that sets him apart from all others. Washington was able to defuse fights by his mere presence; he never returned to Mount Vernon for seven years during the Revolutionary War, as he knew the army would dissolve in his absence; hailing from a family whose men weren't long-lived, he was acutely aware of his mortality and, yet, physically courageous, even physically reckless (see equestrian skills). There is nothing so common as intelligence; the steady Washington, with his peerless presence, was the only man capable of forging the Union that Mr. Lincoln preserved.


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