I’ve been spending my reading time with George Washington of late, or rather with Ron Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the Father of our Country (newly released in colossal paperback).
Chernow and before him David McCullough with his biography of John Adams render a service to all Americans with eyes-wide-open assessments of our founding fathers.
This is not the stuff of legends, but painstakingly researched reconstruction of lives as they were really led. Frankly, the accomplishments can be better appreciated when the men behind them are viewed as fully as possible, warts and all.
Our first president wasn’t a superhuman who “cannot tell a lie.” From his time as a frontier soldier, he carefully crafted his public image and spent an inordinate amount of time deciding how to dress. He was a slaveholder and land speculator deeply in debt when he assumed the presidency. He was a lousy speaker who detested the public ceremonies of which he was constantly at the center.
And yet, he was the perfect man for his times, fearless in battle as he led the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, and the “ultimate pragmatist” in the political struggles that established our Constitution and set precedents that to this day govern how we govern.
Chernow makes a good case that without this one man, a) we don’t win our independence from England, and b) we don’t establish the republican form of government that has served us so well.
These days our founding fathers, the framers of our Constitution, are often cited as the inspiration for those who want to shrink the federal government. In those days, many of them struggled mightily to wrest power from the individual colonies and expand the role of a centralized government.
Washington chafed at the efforts of the original states’ rights advocates to severely limit federal power. In one letter he questioned “the propriety of preventing men from doing good, because there is a possibility of their doing evil.”
Chernow’s biography is a worthy bookend to McCullough’s “Adams,” published in 2001. America’s much-less-revered second president emerges as standoffish, insecure and yet another essential ingredient in the ferment of American freedom.
Both books, but especially Chernow’s, provide remarkable testament to the sorry state of America’s first military men. Clothed in rags, often shoeless, members of the Continental Army spent eight miserable years in the wilderness. Occasionally they engaged the enemy; more often they dealt with disease, hunger, brutal northeast winters and low morale.
They came to mind as I interviewed Frank McNamara for the Veterans Day feature on the front page today. He undoubtedly spoke for most American veterans when he said his driving motivation was to see that our conflicts played out on foreign rather than domestic soil.
Since the Civil War, that’s the way it’s gone for the United States — its warriors fighting for freedom elsewhere while its civilians are safe at home.
You might want to keep that in mind when deciding whether to attend Friday’s Veterans Day parade at 11 a.m. on H Street.