First in War, First In Peace, First In the Hearts of His Countrymen

Today is the 281st birthday of George Washington, despite the celebration earlier this week of Presidents Day that honors every chief george-washington-portraitexecutive from the Father of His Country to duds like James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. In our post-modern age, respect for Gen. Washington is seen as sentimental claptrap. I don’t even bring up the myth of Washington, the lie, and the cherry tree with students anymore because I need the remainder of class to explain something that was once common knowledge to students who are hearing about a charming tale with serious cultural implications for the first time.

No matter. One thing worth mentioning about Washington that has nothing to do with gushing emotions is his dedication to the idea of a republic. A military man and Virginia aristocrat, he was used to people obeying when he first spoke. Yet, he dedicated himself to the primacy of civilian government throughout his career as both as an officer and public servant. The U.S. armed forces swear allegiance to the Constitution and the nation — which is by definition the people who share American identity within the nation-state called the United States of America — and take their orders from the commander-in-chief, who is an elected officeholder. The roots of civilian democracy in a modern sense are embodied by Washington’s attitudes and actions. That kind of integrity is rare. No wonder Washington was called “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”  Here’s an article that explains how Washington exercised his belief in civilian government while facing the very real possibility of a coup during the Revolution led by mutinous officers in the Continental Army. You will appreciate why the man who became our first president had the experience needed to help a young republic survive serious turmoil within our own nation.



Filed under Commentary, History of the Declaration of Independence

2 responses to “First in War, First In Peace, First In the Hearts of His Countrymen

  1. I’ve always appreciated Washington’s stoic devotion – he left a carefully planned life at Mount Vernon to take on the duties of general and, later, commander in chief, all of it done with dignity. All these years later, he still remains a figure to emulate in that regard. I’m somewhat surprised that Kennedy ranks as high as he did on the C-SPAN report. His difficulties with the Bay of Pigs and nepotism with RFK wouldn’t fly today – I always thought he showed potential, and grew as a statesman during his short presidency. Jackie also had a lot to do with romanticizing his myth and creating the image we hold dear today. Now, on to James Buchanan – I don’t know much about him, but would like to learn more about why you consider him a “dud.” Share away!

  2. paulrhuard

    Hi, Deanne: As always, your comments are literate and lively. Thank you for being such a loyal reader. I have some general idea of the methodology used by the C-SPAN panel of historians, but I will base my guess about JFK’s rising star on recent historiography. Within the last 10 years assessments of JFK have returned to the realm of majority positive — he took a revisionist dip as historians in the ’80s and ’90s dissected Camelot and its failure-hiding propaganda — and the reason is the success of his domestic policy as a popular, low-tax, pro-business Democrat with broad bipartisan appeal, and his dedication as a steely eyed Cold War warrior. Once, Vietnam was seen as his greatest failure because he escalated involvement, yet his emphasis on the Green Berets and their small war counter-insurgency strategy actually held the VC and NVA at bay. LBJ decided to fight a conventional war, which was just the quagmire Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nyguen Giap wanted the U.S. to mire itself in. So, JFK gets high marks once again, and that’s without discounting other achievements such as the New Frontier, space program, and civil rights. As for James Buchanan ,.. well, historians as a body rarely agree on anything but the consensus is near universal that Buchanan was the worst president in U.S. history. He should have been better because he had a successful career in Congress but like most of the weak Democrats who were chief executives during the years between Jackson and Lincoln the 15th president was out of his depth as the nation tottered toward Civil War. During his presidency, you have the final years of Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, the successful nationalization of the Immediate Abolition movement, the rise of the Republican Party as the first real opposition to the Democrats in the 19th century that possesses a national base, a near-fatal split of the Democrat Party during the Election of 1860, and secession during his lame duck period when Lincoln was president-elect. Buchanan’s response to any of these events? Nothing. Nada. Zip. He either claimed that he had no constitutional authority to act (He frequently said, “I acknowledge no master but the law.”) or simply admitted that he did not know what to do. That’s pretty amazing from a man who once said he wanted to rival George Washington’s presidency. Buchanan was Pennsylvania “doughface” (Northerner with Southern sympathies) who thought he the safest course was no action because then he could be held accountable for nothing by a divided Democratic Party. O brother! A good introduction to Buchanan, if you are interested, is the entry about him in “To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents,” edited by James M. McPherson.

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