Washington’s gifts were not immediately apparent. Certainly he was fastidious in his dress, indeed something of the dandy. Washington was powdered and puffed and wore a dress sword and white stockings, his shoes had silver buckles and the buttons of his Hartford cloth coat had eagles on them. As a general in the Revolutionary War, however, he seemed unable to win battles. He was in constant retreat hoping perhaps that the British would simply give up and go away. His deficiencies were only saved by his British counterparts being even more ill-endowed. General Howe, his opposite number, has not had a good press. “Any general in the world other than General Howe could have beaten General Washington; and any general in the world could have beaten General Howe”. Finally the French came to help out at Yorktown and that was that. The British contrived to hold up at New York and other bits but eventually went away as Washington had always reasoned they would.
Most of the stories of Washington that are known are as false as his teeth. He suffers from an almost complete makeover to the point of hagiography. The source of all these paeans of Washington’s prowess came from the pen of one Mason Locke Weems or Parson Weems as he is known in posterity. Weems wrote an unbelievably successful Life of George Washington: With curious Anecdotes, Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen which was printed in 1806. It is not a book where events are simply dressed up in their Sunday best it is a book quite simply packed full of lies. Washington never threw a dollar across the Potomac – that is just impossible. He never cut down a cherry tree – that was a story made up years later to make him an exemplar to children, and as for never lying, well come on – he was a politician.
He was a firm believer in his own dignity to the point of vanity. He was cold and reserved in manner and hated to be criticised. He loathed being touched by strangers so all this, combined with his natural taciturnity gave him an aura of aloof distance, making some wonder if they had simply swapped King George III for King George I. Never the raconteur, Washington was hardly going to light up the dinner tables of the Capital.
The Constitution had called his post that of “President of the United States” but the razzmatazz and pomp that accompanied his inauguration were such that they toyed with other more sonorous titles including “His Highness”, “His All Mightiness”, “His Supremacy” and my favourite “His Highness the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties” which has a lovely Cromwellian ring. There were those who felt that they were being asked to now settle for a poor edition of a Polish King. Finally they agreed on the more modest “Your Excellency”. His wife Martha had to put up with being plain “Lady Washington” and take comfort in the twenty one gun salutes that she so enjoyed on each return to the Capital.
Despite all of this, like his successor Ronald Reagan, Washington had an instinctive sense of what it was to be “Presidential” and was willing to travel and be seen throughout the colonies helping bind them together. His may have been a stiff, starched manner, but it brought due solemnity and gravity to the post which was exactly what was needed at that moment. All were finally agreed that he brought just the right touch to the office.
But still, the question is there why did they choose George Washington as President? For the leaders of this palace revolution, this very American coup, Washington had one great advantage over all the others.
He was sterile.
He had no children and there was no hint of hidden bastards lurking behind the arras. Whatever Washington’s personal ambitions might be – either declared or sublimated – his would never be the start of a monarchy. The oligarchy could buy some time to consolidate.
Copyright David Macadam 2010