Channelling George Washington: First in Their Hearts


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Johnny Adams is in his usual February funk.”

“Why does he get that way, Mr. President?”

“He can’t stand the way people like to celebrate my birthday.  It tormented him all through his presidency.  When he was invited to a birthday ball in 1798, he wrote REFUSED across the invitation and mailed it back.  Pretty soon it was in the newspapers and the Federalist Party was on its way to disruption.”

“Did you do anything to promote this idea, Mr. President?”

“On the contrary, the first time my birthday was celebrated, in 1778 at Valley Forge, I refused to so much as acknowledge it.  After supper, General Knox sent the artillery regiment’s band around to serenade me.  I sent Martha out with money for the musicians, and orders to say I’d gone to bed.  But it didn’t slow things down one bit.”

“What’s your explanation?”           

“Psychology.  It’s how leadership works.  Most people tend to focus on a single individual.  It’s why I keep saying the presidency is so important.”

“Is that why you wrote your Farewell Address?”

“Absolutely.  I had people’s attention, you might say, after eight years as a general and eight years as a president.  It was a great opportunity to get across some basic ideas that the country should never forget.”

“Which idea did you think was the most important?”

“That’s easy—the warning not to become too emotionally involved with a foreign country.  As I put it in the Farewell, ‘Cultivate peace and harmony with all, but avoid permanent inveterate antipathies against particular nations and passionate attachments to others.’  I’m sorry to say this advice has NOT been taken more often than it’s been followed.”

“What countries have attracted Americans since you wrote those words?”

“In my day it was France and the French Revolution.  Twenty years later, during the War of 1812, some New Englanders had a flirtation with Britain.  They talked about seceding and forming a new country that would include Nova Scotia and parts of Canada.  As Irish immigrants became numerous, it was Ireland.  In the 1880s there was a congressman from Chicago who was obsessed with the Emerald Isle.  One day a reporter asked him what had transpired in the House of Representatives that morning.  ‘Nothing important,’ he said.  ‘Just American business.’”

“In the 1890s and early 1900s, wasn’t there was another romance with England?”

“All too true.  Daughters of wealthy tycoons married bankrupt British noblemen by the dozen.  Too many people admired the British Empire and started bragging about their English roots.  It was one of the key reasons we got embroiled in World War I.  Woody Wilson was one of the most entranced.”

“In the 1920s and 1930s Soviet Russia was going to change everybody’s lives.”

“The lure of a revolution that was going to transform the world, ala France in the 1790s.  It’s fascinating how some people buy into that sort of grandiose propaganda, never realizing that the propagandists are spouting it for thoroughly selfish reasons.  As I put it in the Farewell, they succumb to ‘the illusion of an imaginary common interest.’”

“You don’t believe in depending on the affection of a foreign country?”

“It doesn’t exist.  Again, to quote myself, ‘there can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation.’”

“Have other parts of your Farewell advice been observed?”

“I’m happy to say the answer is yes.  Along with warning against foreign attachments, I stressed the overwhelming importance of maintaining the union.  I called it ‘the main pillar in the edifice of our independence, the support of our tranquility at home and our peace abroad—of our safety, our prosperity, of that very liberty which we so highly prize.”
“I think we forget how often there’s been talk of secession by different parts of the country.”

“How true.  It’s not simply the great secession crisis that triggered the Civil War.  In the brawl over ratifying the Constitution, there was some bold talk of New York remaining a holdout and going its independent way.  Some reckless spouters in Rhode Island voiced similar sentiments.  New Englanders came close to departing during the War of 1812.  South Carolina tried to secede in 1833.  Californians flirted with the idea occasionally in the nineteenth century, Texans have periodically threatened to head for the exits, with one angry voice raised as recently as 2010.”

“I seem to recall the superintendent of West Point ordered that your Farewell be read to the cadets as the Civil War loomed and many young men were being urged to follow their seceding states.”                        

“It may have persuaded a few of these troubled young men.”

“How was the Farewell Address received by the people in 1796?”

“The reaction was divided sharply between the two emerging political parties.  The Democratic Republicans, who were wildly pro-French, sneered at it.  The Federalists, forerunners of today’s Republicans, praised it warmly.  I didn’t have any illusions that it would be otherwise.”

“As I recall it, the sneers and sniping continued right up to your last day in office.”

“One pro-French scribbler wrote:  ‘The man who is the source of all the misfortunes of our country is this day reduced to a level with his fellow citizens and is no longer possessed of power to multiply evils upon the United States.  If ever there was a period for rejoicing, this is the moment.’”

“What a way to say goodbye!”

“Fortunately for my morale, there was another goodbye.  After the inauguration of John Adams, I went back to my home and did some final rearranging of my papers.  Then I decided to walk to the St. Francis Hotel, where the new president was staying, to pay my respects.  I rather enjoyed strolling along as plain George Washington, neither general nor president.”

“Didn’t anyone notice you?”

“I suddenly realized the street behind me was full of people.  They walked behind me and beside me as an escort in complete silence all the way.  At the door of the hotel, I turned and looked at them.  I had a sudden wish to say something.  But it was impossible for me to utter a word.  Instead, tears streamed down my cheeks.  I don’t know how long we faced each other in total silence.  Finally I turned and went into the hotel. As the door closed behind me, a great smothered sigh went through the crowd, something between a sob and a groan.”

“That was a tribute from the voiceless common man, who knew they were saying goodbye to their greatest friend!  For them you were not only first in war, and first in peace, General.  You were first in their hearts!”

“It’s a memory I still treasure.”

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jonathan Dresner - 1/30/2011

Seems odd to me that George Washington would emphasize the attachments - which is a grossly simplistic explanation for our foreign policies over the last century or so - and ignore the "avoid permanent inveterate antipathies against particular nations" clause of that very statement. Perhaps it's Mr. Fleming's Buchananite isolationism, rather than Washington's pre-world power attempt to maintain independence, which is guiding these discussions.