Founding Fathers and late U.S. colonial history — Part 2
My previous blog on Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton began what will be a series of blog posts to follow on what enlightenment and wisdom we may still discover in reading on our Founding Fathers and late American colonial history.
For after all, there is so much now that has been re-written and revised, and journalist/critic Barry Gewen urges us in his piece of June 5, 2005, to consider divergent, global perspectives of our history that speak more directly to the needs of our time than do biographies of dead white Founding Fathers. We are missing, according to Gewen, the “bigger picture [that ]is in the process of being lost” and we are running out of Founding Fathers to write about. These concerns I hope to explore in reviewing some relevant historic works readers can find in Lantana Public Library’s collection.
George Washington: a Life by Ron Chernow
[Hardback], Penguin Press, 2010.
Lantana Public Library Call No.: B Was
Many of us know the young Washington served in the the French-Indian wars on the frontier and happily married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Even so, Washington, Chernow tells us, had multiple challenges to overcome before achieving these. One challenge for him was surely being fatherless by his early teens, with a stubborn, semi-literate mother and numerous siblings to support on the family’s modest farm near Fredericksburg; lacking a college education, Washington advanced through relentless self-study, surveying, and military service (as an adjutant in the Virginia Regiment — the first and only colonial militia the British attempted to professionalize). Another often overlooked feat is that by his early 30’s Washington had already survived deathly diseases still with us today, but in the developing world (he suffered pneumonia or pleurisy, malaria, smallpox, typhus, and dysentery). Medical research has even suggested Washington may have lived much of his life with tuberculosis, contracted while he nursed his older half-brother and shorter-lived guardian Lawrence Washington. As Americans, we often reflect on how much better our life chances remain than those of others in the world at large; discovering what Washington faced and overcame in impoverished, low-lying Tidewater Virginia might make us temper our ethnocentrism and recognize how colonial Americans were eager then, as Americans are still, to improve their lives and find wealth.
We also imagine Washington bravely battling the British in the War of Independence and wintering at Valley Forge with a chronically under-funded, outnumbered and outgunned, beleaguered Continental army and the poorly trained militias against a hegemonic Great Britain. How did he wage and win the war against such odds? Chernow’s account clarifies that Washington did so by adopting what today we would term a long term war of attrition; moreover, such a war required that Washington become adept at administration and financing (by seeking out and gaining critical loans from financier Robert Morris when Congressional funding was not forthcoming), in deal-making and brokering with Congress (having served as a representative in the Virginia House of Burgesses helped him in this regard, as well as being landed gentry), as well as in exercising diplomacy. His efforts and those of Franklin and Adams in gaining foreign alliances with France and Holland would prove crucial. With the French naval encirclement and coordinated bombardment of Yorktown, as well as the surrender of Cornwallis, Washington won the war, and the Treaty of Paris of 1783 formalized the peace. After, he would also seek concessions from France and Spain to allow expansion of pioneer settlements in the Ohio Valley and for free trade via New Orleans. Thus, even in late 18th century, the war and subsequent U.S. expansion never unfolded in isolation; the country was much a part of the European and Caribbean, as well as Latin America worlds.
We know the strong, federalist President made famous by Gilbert Stuart’s portraits, but we may not discern that with him was established a strong, vigorous Executive Branch with Executive Privilege (beginning with the Jay Treaty with Britain) and powers to formulate economic and foreign policy and to negotiate treaties. As today much of the public worries over President Obama’s fast-tracking of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and what it entails, we might also want to recall how the public perceived Washington’s efforts in his time. We know, of course, that he would not resolve great outstanding Constitutional issues (slavery, the claims and dispositions of native American Indians), nor prove adaptable to the raucous 19th century style of politics of the Jeffersonian Republicans and Jacksonian Democrats. Chernow shows us, though, that Washington still managed with extraordinary shrewdness a cabinet of remarkably dynamic individual founders — Hamilton, Jefferson, Knox, as well as Vice-President John Adams. James Madison and John Jay also served as advisors for matters related to Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court. All but one of these cabinet members and advisers had served overseas or had come from abroad.
Last but not least, there is the slave catcher and indebted planter that George Washington remained until his death, notes Erica Armstrong Dunbar in her Feb. 15, 2015, New York Times opinion. However, Chernow does not neglect to write of this Washington; we learn that even while residing in Philadelphia as the nation’s first President, Washington secretly rotated household slaves every 6 months to and from Mount Vernon, so that his slaves would never reside long enough in Pennsylvania to become legally free. Washington’s efforts to cultivate a disinterested, modest life were undone by his lavish lifestyle – whereby he even had to borrow money to attend his own inauguration. (Washington would never live a life modeled on the great Classical Roman statesman and leader Cincinnatus, who resigned his military command to retire to his farm.) And yet, within his life, there is evidence Washington concluded that the intensive slave labor underpinning increasingly unprofitable tobacco plantation farming could not be adapted to fit the diversified and more profitable grain crop production that he introduced to Mount Vernon and other properties; he eventually came to view the commerce of human trafficking and the breaking up of slave families as repugnant. With deliberate planning, he willed that 123 Mount Vernon slaves be freed upon Martha’s death.
In closing, like so many Americans today, Washington was often buffeted by circumstances beyond his control in some instances, yet he chose at times to resist or rebel against being reduced by them, and we several hundred years later can take note. Yes, his and his peers’ rebellion was but one area of the world within Britain’s expanding global Empire, and the rebellion was but to win equality and freedom for one small group of elite white men. But there was the justness of such a fight. For it was while fighting in the French-Indian/Seven Years War for his colonial British masters that Washington began to seek better pay from the British for himself and the colonial militias, as well as promotions denied him and his troops. In time, he began to realize that independence from British rule and constitutional democracy for himself and others within a republic had to be fought for to achieve greater equality, as well as freedom.
As a part-time adjunct college instructor relegated to second class status by tenurism and the corporate business of higher education, I cannot help but draw parallels between my service and Washington’s service to his 18th century colonial masters. I’m still ranked secondary and never equal, dispensable and temporary to my college employers, irrespective of my qualifications, abilities, compensation, institutional memory and length of service, and dedication to my students and the community I live in. Washington and his peers eventually decided to fight, albeit for their own interests and not all. My part-time colleagues and I also are now also beginning to do the same; whether our struggle can encompass and uplift the lives of others in similar circumstances to ours remains to be seen.