Saturday, February 19, 2011

What if George Washington Had Never Been Born?

What if George Washington had never been born? What if the "father of our country" was someone else? Would the French and Indian War have started? Would the Continental Army have defeated the British under someone else's leadership? Would someone else have successfully thwarted a military coup at Newburgh? Would a different general refused opportunities and requests for supreme authority? Would the Constitutional Convention been successful without his authoritative presence? And who would have been the first President of the United States?

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.

Even though Washington's generalship in the Revolutionary War produced mixed results, he excelled in the areas that mattered most. His character was unimpeachable, thus he could be trusted with the army and the authority given him. He was brave, thus earning the just respect of his men and inspiring them to similar acts of courage. He was a superb strategist, in that he quickly grasped the nature of the "long game" and the need to keep his army in the field and not risk it in too many grandiose, stand-up engagements. He knew when he had to have a victory, such as a Trenton, and when to cut his losses, such as Germantown.

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.

After the Constitution was signed, Washington lent his name and prestige to support ratification of the document. It's unlikely the Constitution would've been ratified, had Washington been absent from the Convention or had he declined to support it.

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.


JMS said...

The ultimate significance of George Washington's life lies in the fact that he single-handedly redefined our traditional idea of greatness. Before he lived, to be great was to be triumphant: to conquer an enemy's territory, to kill his soldiers, and subdue his populace. In an age when divine right held sway over most of the planet, greatness was measured by the authority vested in one man, and the lengths to which he would go to keep that authority.

No act was perhaps as symbolic of Washington's fabled "disinterested" virtue than the surrender of his sword to Congress shortly following the official cessation of the Revolutionary War in December of 1783. Historian Gordon Wood related the magnitude of such observance of duty: "It was extraordinary; a victorious general's surrendering his arms and returning to his farm was unprecedented in modern times. Cromwell, William of Orange, Marlborough--all had sought political rewards commensurate with their military achievements."

What struck me about Wood's analysis of the nation's first leader was the particular way in which Washington's character affected the above-mentioned mystique of his decisions and actions. As Wood put it, "Washington's genius, Washington's greatness, lay in his character."
To his everlasting credit, George Washington was ambiguous about power. The man who could have been king insisted that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, however imperfect their judgment. At the end of the war, and again at the end of his presidency, he calmly walked away from power. This genius for renunciation prompted the dying Napoleon in his windswept exile to remark, "They wanted me to be another Washington."

parking said...

america really has a lot of historical stories, and has a very unique culture, somehow when I can visit to America ...???

MPA said...

I think you guys are swinging to hard from George's gonads.

Augusta said...

To the person above, George Washington did not invent the surrender of power after he had his 15 minutes. That was a Roman ideal of greatness many centuries before Washington was born. Washington, like other educated men, sought to emulate the ancient Romans.

Certainly things might have turned out differently without Washington, but we can't assume all other things would then be constant. It's easy to imagine life without something but not the multitude of ways it could be different :)

That said, I'm glad I found this blog. Very refreshing!

Anonymous said...

Cincinnatus set the example of the general returning to his plow. They named a city after him in Ohio. I wonder if Washington's ambivalence towards power wasn't inspired by feelings of guilt at having precipitated so much bloodshed with the assassination of Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. William Thackeray said of Washington:
“It was strange that in a savage forest of Pennsylvania, a young Virginian officer should fire a shot, and waken a war which was to last for 60 years, which was to cover his own country and pass into Europe, to cost France her American colonies, to sever ours from us, and create the great western republic; to rage over the old world when extinguished in the new; and, of all the myriad engaged in the vast contest, to leave the prize of the greatest fame to him who struck the first blow.”
Sixty years later the world was a very different place. Austria was modelling itself on the French Empire and Prussian militancy was firmly established and set to cast its shadow over the next hundred years. A shadow which led inexorably to the dictatorships of fascism and communism.

James Rada said...

I saw something the other day that said Dinesh DeSouza (sp?) had made a new movie based on the premise "What if George Washington had died in battle?" Don't know anything else about it, but it would be interesting to see if it reaches similar conclusions as your post.

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