Hillsdale, MI. Most of us don’t know what we owe to George Washington.  Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John, when she first saw him, “I thought the one half was not told me.”  That George could charm the difficult New England lady reminds us how John Kennedy or Barak Obama affect some (even intelligent) women.  George was six feet three and, in his best days, almost two hundred and fifteen pounds; as impressive on a horse as Michael Jordan on a basketball  court–a God-given man.  Jefferson said, “He was the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.”  He could dance–could have won “Dancing with the Stars” back then.  Unlike his sexy modern presidential successors, he saved our country from what we are about to become.

The Continental Army was restive by the time it was fairly comfortably stationed at Newburgh, up the Hudson River from New York City, in 1783.  The officers hadn’t been paid in quite a while; many of them were beyond the reach of patriotic appeals to charity.  Congress was meeting in Philadelphia, and some nationalists wanted to squeeze them a little.  If, perhaps, the congressmen were to think that a rebellion might just break out…?  Nationalists in and out of the army saw the potential: use the military to get the politicians back in line.  No need for an actual military takeover; just an implied, background, hang-over-your-head suggestion.

The officers wanted to get paid, and to be recognized for the incredible sacrifices they had made.  Many of them were about to go home to ruined farms, struggling businesses, families who had been all but abandoned.  Many of them had been the object of specific British retaliation, and they were in no mood to accept the fate of our veterans returning from Vietnam.  Nationalists of the stature of Alexander Hamilton, who was like a son to the childless Washington, and Robert Morris, the financial genius who had kept the Continental Army afloat, entered into what has become known as the “Newburgh Conspiracy” to force Congress to adopt an impost amendment to the Articles of Confederation, and thus give the national government an independent source of income.  The nationalists, by and large, thought that the question was not whether the national government would have too much power, but rather, if there would be a national government at all.

George Washington had become a nationalist because as commander of a national army he had been forced to see American independence from a point of view that transcended local loyalties.  He loved his army.  He wanted to go home to Mount Vernon and, like Cincinnatus, take up the plow again, but he still felt the collar of public duty.  The nationalists thought that if they could get him on board with their plot, or at least get him to stay neutral, there would be nothing in the way of their mini-revolution.

Although the plot was complicated and never very well organized, the key to it all was the character of George Washington.  In May of 1782 Col. Lewis Nicola wrote to Washington at Newburgh suggesting that he consider a strong sentiment in the army and amnog the people to make him king.  Washington wrote back, “you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable,” and cut off such talk at the knees.  He was familiar, in other words, that there were “schemes” out there, which to Washington threatened to undo all that he and the country had sacrificed for, for almost twenty years.

He was not without a sense of drama.  He had caused Joseph Addison’t play Cato to be performed several times for his officers.  He had probably adopted its character for his public persona, just as Ronald Reagan (a real actor) took on consciously the role of The Gipper.  When the officers met at the common hall at Newburgh on the Ides of March, 1783, probably to pass resolutions that would have frightened the figurative pants off the members of Congress, Washington rode suddenly into the meeting–one he had promised not to attend–and insisted on taking the podium.  Planning (and pretending) to fumble with a letter from a Congressman, he reached inside his coat to put on a pair of spectacles, which only a few men knew that he needed.   “Gentlemen,” he said, you must pardon me.  I have grown gray in your service and now find myself going blind as well.”  The room stiffened; tears came to hardened officers’ eyes.

Washington then gave them one of the most stirring addresses in American military or political history, ending with this exhortation, which all Americans on this “President’s Day” should take into their hearts:

And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country, as you value your

own sacred honor, as you respect the rights of humanity, and as you regard the

Military and National character of America, to express your utmost horror and

detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the

liberties of our Country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil

discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.  By thus determining, and thus acting,

you will pursue the plain and direct road to the attainment of your wishes.  You will

defeat the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open

force to secret Artifice.  You will give one more distinguished proof of unexampled

patriotism and patient virtue, rising superior to the pressure of the most complicated

sufferings; And you will, by the dignity of your Conduct, afford occasion for posterity

to say, when speaking of the glorious example you have exhibited to Mankind, “had

this day been wanting, the World had never seen the last stage of perfection to which

human nature is capable of attaining.”

We have a Constitution and separation of powers and at least the idea of limited government because of the character of George Washington.  Don’t think of Monday as “President’s Day.”  Several people have said that the history of the presidency from George Washington to Barak Obama is a clear refutation of the theory of evolution.  While that is probably true, it does not do justice to the Father of His Country.

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  1. That one Willson never fails to choke me up, and your rendition is as good as any in print.
    There was no greater American, president, general-of-the-army than George Washington. It is said, by the uneducated, that he was not a genius. To those that believe such silliness I recommend they read his writings.
    Washington, indeed, was the greatest president, and his generation stood out first among the generations of Americans.
    Any comparison between Washington and Dear Leader is merely amusing.

  2. “We have a Constitution and separation of powers and at least the idea of limited government”


    I see Dr. Willson has confused the USSA and its proletarian inhabitants with the tiny island nation of Malta.

    More seriously — good essay, sir. I’m especially curious about Cato; I only learned of this hisorically momentous work rather recently, and would like to see a performance someday.

  3. When Washington refused a permanent sinecure and went back home to his beloved Mount Vernon, he set the tone that we have still not quite overturned. The only problem now is that while politicians sometimes return home, the institutions of K Street are permanent. Not to mention the fact that the expensive doings in Foggy Bottom are beginning to rival sports as the nations non-stop entertainment.

    Washington, a military man, also was first to stand firm against the idea of a standing army.

    The difference between then and now is that the leadership did not have the farrago of a media campaign and its many tainted dollars to ruin them, permanently, just to get elected.

  4. Art Deco,

    “Whatever”…..sniffing derision, my favorite kind. Your point? The Legion was hardly a “standing army”. But you may be right in pointing to creeping lapses of original rhetoric, a long-standing Federal Policy. The natives likely didn’t see much difference between a standing army and a temporary expeditionary force following guerrila methods.

    Thanks for the reference.

  5. Now there’s an idea! Let’s abolish the stupid President’s Day holiday and replace it with Newburgh Day on March 15.

    King George 3 appreciated the significance of that event. We should, too.

    Several years ago when some of us were compiling our lists of the Ten Most Significant Political Events of the Millenium, I put this Newburgh event close to the top of my list, if not at the very top.

    Ah, I found it in my e-mail archives. What follows was my contribution back in the closing days of the last millenium.

    1. Martin Luther’s speech to Emperor Charles V, ending with “Hier steh’ ich. Ich kann nicht anders.” Actually, he probably didn’t say those exact words, but the meaning was clear. This example paved the way for a later hero such as Linda Tripp to stand tall and resist the full force and fury of a trillion dollar government and its hate-spewing groupies.

    2. George Washington’s gentle refusal to take part in the Newburgh Conspiracy in 1783. His willingness to relinquish power, and his refusal to grab more power when it was there for the taking, is an event almost without parallel even in American history, but it was the defining moment for the political history of the United States.

    3. The invention of the Printing Press

  6. Spokesrider,

    Got your point, and it’s a good one. And we probably don’t know exactly what Luther said. We do know, however, what Charlie V said to him the next day, and I like it better. Part of it is “For it is certain that a single friar errs in his opinion which is against all of Christendom and according to which all of Christianity will be and always will have been in error both in the past thousand years and even more in the present. For that reason I am absolutely determined to stake on this cause my kingdoms and seignories, my friends, my body and blood, my life and soul.” Compared with that, Luther’s courage pales. Washington, I would submit, is more like the king he did not want to be. He was willing to give up his life, fortune, and sacred honor, while all Luther was willing to give up was his allegiance to the Church. He already had his escape plan worked out.

    Having said that, and you won’t convince me anything about Luther I haven’t already thought through, I take your point to be honorable. How about including Thomas More?

  7. Dr. Willson, you could have written a lot about Martin Luther vs the Roman Church that could have set a Lutheran like myself to squirming. You could have taken the side of Thomas More in the debates over the issues of authority and unity, for example. You could have poked at Luther’s doctrine of sola scriptura. But to compare the courage of Luther with that of the Holy Roman Emperor? There was little risk of Charles having to give up life and fortune. He knew where his social status and bling-bling came from. He was taking the side that kept his bread buttered. As to his sacred honor, it would have been honorable to honor the safe-conduct that he had used to get Luther to come to Worms. Then he could have had the courage to give his speech to Luther’s face instead of talking behind his back after the good monk had escaped his treachery. Yes, Luther had an escape planned, and good for him. There was no need for him to be a passive martyr, any more than Linda Tripp or any of Clinton’s victims should have been criticized for having a possible “book deal” by which they might support themselves in the face of ostracism and blackballing. Luther needed an escape route. Charles V had no need of one.

    BTW, I didn’t realize it until yesterday, but I think you’re the same person my wife and I enjoyed meeting at a B&B on Put-in-Bay back in summer 2003. Your wife and you were both there. I didn’t make the connection until I saw Hillsdale in your byline.

  8. Great column, Dr. Wilson.
    I have some news for you. The State of New York is considering closing Washington’s Headquarters. Please read this blog entry I just updated. http://thenewburghscene.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-close-washingtons-headquarters.html

    I am the former Newburgh City Historian and author of a book Newburgh: The Mecca of Historic Preservation. I will be involved in keeping this issue on the radar screen. Your knowledge, advice, and/or assistance would be greatly appreciated.

  9. No! Not when we should be preparing to celebrate March 15 as our biggest national holiday! It would be like shutting down Independence Hall or Mount Vernon.

    Try to hang on. I could see making a pilgrimage by bicycle in 2013. Let’s see, two weeks, 681 miles — let’s call it a thousand to allow for my usual way of routing. It would be a bit more than I like to do anymore, but with the west winds at my back it might work. It wouldn’t be a good time of year for arrival on the big day itself, though. But I could stop along the way at some of the places where southwest Michigan’s settlers of the 1820s and 1830s came from.

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