Saturday, February 19, 2011
What if George Washington Had Never Been Born?
George Washington and the French and Indian War
Would the American Revolution have taken place, absent the French and Indian War? Most historians would probably say "no," as the French and Indian War (aka "Seven Years' War") accelerated the cultural and political divide between the colonies and the Mother Country. Without the French and Indian War, Britain's treasury would've been in a much healthier position in the 1760s. Thus, it's unlikely Britain would've felt compelled to levy as many taxes on the colonies or station troops in North America.
Since George Washington was right in the thick of instigating the French and Indian War, it's tempting to conclude that the Seven Years' War might never have occurred. Thus, some might wonder if Washington was at least indirectly responsible for the Revolutionary War happening in the first place.
While the young, eager, and inexperienced Washington did indeed stumble his way into a skirmish that led to the French and Indian War, the nature in which that skirmish took place and the way in which tensions were already mounting between France and England leads one to believe that the French and Indian War was inevitable. It's going much too far to conclude that Washington was solely responsible for starting the war or that the war never would've happened without him. In the case of the French and Indian War, George Washington rode events more than he drove them.
George Washington and the American Revolution
As with the French and Indian War, George Washington was incidental to the American Revolution starting. Sure, he helped fuel tensions against the Mother Country from his estate in Virginia and seat in the House of Burgesses. Sure, he co-wrote The Fairfax Resolves. Sure, he was part of the First and (initially) the Second Continental Congress. But, as with the French and Indian War, he rode events more than driving them. The American Revolution would've happened, even if George Washington had never been born.
That's not to say, however, that the American Revolution would've been a victory for the Americans, had Washington not played his part in it. Yes, the Revolutionary War would've happened, but once it broke out, strong leadership was needed to see it through to a successful conclusion. And it's difficult to imagine who else could've provided that leadership other than George Washington.
Had Washington not been alive, the Continental Congress would've had to consider the likes of Artemas Ward (health issues), Israel Putnam (age and health concerns, a stroke in 1779 ended his career), Charles Lee (issues with competence, character, and loyalty), John Hancock (an impressive signature and trader, but an effective general only in his imagination), or Horatio Gates (an ambitious, conniving opportunist who showed his true colors at Camden). Their best choices would likely have been Philip Schuyler or Richard Montgomery, but neither of these men were optimal choices. Some of my readers may be thinking Benedict Arnold (who, aside from the whole treason thing, was an excellent leader), Nathanael Greene, or Henry Knox, but these men flourished under Washington's guidance and mentoring. The scenario we're considering is 1775, not later in the war, when either Knox or Greene would've been an able replacement to Washington.
It's very difficult to imagine any other person leading the Continental Army to victory over the British Empire in the American Revolution.
George Washington and the Revolution's Aftermath
Washington's indispensable nature becomes truly evident in the closing years and immediate aftermath of the Revolutionary War. After Yorktown, what little public sentiment there was to support the war effort began to quickly evaporate, leaving Washington's army in the field with poor supplies, inadequate pay, and broken promises. Washington didn't dare support the dissolution of his forces, because that would remove any pressure on the British to grant American independence in the peace negotiations he knew were taking place in France. Washington therefore had the dangerous and unenviable task of keeping an increasingly frustrated, desperate, and disillusioned army in the field.
Washington knew when to be harsh in his discipline and when to make concessions. And he knew when to risk his own reputation and possible safety. His performance at Newburgh is the stuff of legend. Can anyone possibly imagine someone else other than George Washington pulling that off?
What's more, when Washington was essentially offered the keys to the government and the ability to become a dictator, he refused. Would Horatio Gates have refused? Would Charles Lee have refused?
Without Washington's character, fortitude, and calming presence, the American Revolution would likely have degenerated into civil unrest and a military dictatorship. The dream of freedom and a republican form of government would've been stillborn.
George Washington and the Constitutional Convention
In terms of the actual content of the Constitution, Washington's participation at the Constitutional Convention was more symbolic than substantive. The members of the Convention understood Washington would likely be the first Chief Executive, so the way they hammered out the executive branch of government was likely influenced by this realization. In terms of actual discussion and debate, Washington said very little. It is certainly conceivable, though, that the Constitution would've been very close in content and composition to what it was, had Washington not been present.
Ratification of the new Constitution or the very fact that the Convention happened in the first place are different matters altogether. Washington was instrumental in laying the groundwork for Americans understanding that a stronger government, than the one provided for the Articles of Confederation, was necessary. And his attendance at the Constitutional Convention did much to allay fears and concerns that a monarchy or dictatorship was being erected in Philadelphia.
George Washington and the First Presidency
Ask the average American what George Washington did as President and you will get a smattering of answers, most of them sparse. There is the impression that George Washington was more a figurehead than a substantive leader, and that his contributions as President were minimal. Nothing could be further from the truth.
President Washington created the Cabinet, appointed the first Supreme Court, presided over the adoption of the Bill of Rights, kept us out of a renewed (and costly) war with Great Britain, put down the Whiskey Rebellion, and supported the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton which were necessary to get the United States on a sound financial footing. He also supported moving the capital of the nation to its present location, and took an active part in its initial designs. Most historians rank Washington as at least our second or third greatest President, falling behind only Abraham Lincoln and sometimes Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Washington was Indispensable
When you consider all that George Washington did for the United States -- and didn't do (such as becoming dictator or king) -- one has to agree with the late Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner, who wrote that George Washington was "the indispensable man."
Remove George Washington from history and you remove quite possibly the very existence of the United States of America and most certainly its nature and identity as the world's leading superpower and the greatest republic the world has ever known.
For more on George Washington, check on the latest biography Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.