George Washington and the fight for freedom

George Washington was one of the most important Americans in the nation’s history. Photo: The surrender of Cornwallis

SAN JOSE, February 28, 2013 – As February closes, it is appropriate to recognize George Washington, one of the most important Americans in the nation’s history, for his value in the formation of the United States of America.

Thanks to the U.S. Congress, through the Uniform Holiday Act of 1971, the United States does not celebrate Washington’s birthday on his actual birth date.  In addition, the confusion over Presidents Day diminishes Washington’s value in comparison to the rest of the presidents who have occupied the post. It is important that younger Americans have a deeper perspective on the significance of Washington’s legacy in the fight for freedom.  

George Washington was willing to fight for his ideals and values even if it meant laying down his life.  He was also a key leader, if not the key leader, in the infancy of the United States.

The core of the beliefs and values the Founders shared are contained within the words of the Declaration of Independence. The document, although fundamentally attributed to Thomas Jefferson who wrote the original draft, was a document written by many. Before the members of the Continental Congress affixed their names to it, the Declaration of Independence was amended 88 times. Eventually, after the words were refined to express the essence of what the delegates could all agree upon, they signed it. By doing so, they took great risk; signing the document was akin to signing their own death warrants. Benjamin Franklin reportedly quipped at the time that the signers had better “all hang together, or they would all hang separately…”

Such was the seriousness of the men who risked their lives for the beliefs and values that focused upon the fight for freedom from British tyranny. These men put into play events which altered the course of human history. To a much greater extreme, George Washington risked his life on a regular basis for such beliefs and values. He willingly accepted the nomination of his peers to command the newly adopted army. When he took command as the general of the of the rag-tag band of men and boys in Massachusetts, on July 2, 1775, he realized that he had a tremendous amount of work in front of him. The “troops” did not resemble an army and were no match for the British military which boasted truly professional soldiers and perhaps the most disciplined, best equipped, and strongest force on the planet at that time.

Despite the fact that the British government deployed 33,000 soldiers and seamen (the largest deployment in their history) to deal with the problem in the colonies, perhaps the deeper problem Washington faced was the inherent weakness of Congress.  At the time, the Continental Congress, operating provisionally under the Articles of Confederation, was not able to provide the support that the colonial “troops” needed. Many Americans are aware of the long winter in 1777-78 at Valley Forge, but many are not aware of the severe hardships faced by the troops due to the lack of supplies. During that cold and bitter time, Washington wrote of his men: “Naked and starving as they are, we cannot insufficiently admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiers.”

Washington was forced to plead with the Congress time and again for the money or supplies needed to maintain the fight against the British forces.  In 1780, he wrote: “We have been half our time without provision, and are likely to continue so. We have no magazines, nor money to form them, and in a little time we shall have no men, if we had money to pay them. We have lived upon expedients till we can no longer. In a word, the history of the war is a history of false hopes and temporary devices…” In short, Washington made the best use of what little he had, and he developed a real closeness to his men which ensured that a core of the army held together despite so much discouragement and so many desertions of disillusioned freedom fighters.

Numerous accounts reveal the dire and desperate circumstances of the Continental Army. On more than one occasion at the beginning of 1781, angry officers and troops marching on the Congress at Philadelphia to either demonstrate their dissatisfaction with lack of pay for more than a year, or to seize power and take matters into their own hands, had to be halted and disbanded by General Washington who saw to it that insurrectionist leaders were executed. He would not tolerate a threat to the fragile government of the people, no matter how weak Congress was. Some accounts of these incidents imply that Washington could have been tempted to use such opportunities to simply seize power via the army, eliminate the civilian government in Philadelphia, and take over as the first monarch of the U.S.A.

Even after the victory over General Cornwallis in Yorktown, and before a genuine treaty of peace with England was formally established, dangerous circumstances evolved within Washington’s army, known as the Newburgh Conspiracy. The Continental Army located in Newburgh, New York was monitoring the British withdrawal from New York City after the war. During this time, several high ranking colonial officers ostensibly upset at not being paid wages and pensions that had been promised by Congress, were involved in some shadowy plot regarding what they could do before the entire army was disbanded to force Congress to yield back the pay and pension money. Some accounts imply that a coup was on the minds of some of the more ambitious officers.

Washington again intervened and managed to redirect the focus of the discontented men with whom he sympathized. General Washington called the officers together and delivered a famous speech which became known as the Newburg Address. Before he spoke to his officers who had served with him through the bitter years of war, Washington pulled out a letter from Congress that he intended to read. As he initially stared at the letter, Washington removed a pair of spectacles that most had never seen him wear. He requested their pardon saying: “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” At that point, before he even got to the reasons why they should oppose anyone, “…who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood…” he had moved his audience to take his words of caution to heart.

If the Commander-in-Chief had been a man like Caesar, or a Napoleon Bonaparte, or someone with a mind like Hitler, the opportunities would have become excuses to take control of the nation. Many in the colonies expected Washington to declare himself King if he managed to defeat the British.

During this time, King George III reportedly asked Benjamin West, an American artist who painted Washington, what the Commander-in-Chief would do if he won the war. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”

King George III marveled, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

After the Revolution, the most famous Virginian fulfilled what King George had prophesied. He disbanded the army not long after he delivered the Newburgh Address and he went back home to Mt. Vernon. And after he served his country once again as the commander of the most powerful position of the new republic, he stepped down as president and went back home to his farm. Washington’s belief in freedom and in the “republican” values was not just what he portrayed in some political slogan, it was how Washington lived his life and how he led by example on the pathway to freedom.

It is a good thing to remember that Washington was just a man; however, he was a man who held fast to his ideals, and one who put his principles into practice to the best of his ability. 


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Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison
Dennis Jamison reinvented his life after working for a multi-billion dollar division of Johnson & Johnson for several years. Now semi-retired, he is an adjunct faculty member  at West Valley College in California.  He also currently writes a column on history and one on American freedom for the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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