George Will

WASHINGTON -- His goal, 220 years ago, was to sleep Christmas Eve in his 6-foot 6-inch bed at his Virginia home on the bank of the Potomac. It would be nicer than some other recent Christmas Eves.

Such as in 1776, when he led soldiers across Delaware River ice floes to one of his greatest -- and, truth be told, relatively few -- victories, at Trent Town, as Trenton was then known. Only four Americans died that night, two -- probably shoeless -- from frostbite.

George Washington spent Christmas Eve 1777 with an army leaving bloody footprints in the Valley Forge snow. Six years later, he was heading to a home he had left in 1775 to lead farmers and shopkeepers against the British Empire.

Since Yorktown, Washington, like his embryonic nation, had lived in a peculiar limbo as negotiators, two months' travel away in Paris, codified peace with Britain. In late November, from headquarters along the Hudson River north of Manhattan island, he began his trek from strenuous public service into a placid future of private enjoyments, or so he thought.

His journey was through a nation deep in the throes -- it would be in them for many years -- of regime change. To the extent that there was a national regime, he was it, and he was retiring.

In January 1783 Congress had fled Philadelphia, going to ground in Princeton, N.J., to escape a mutiny of unpaid soldiers. Congress was a place of empty palaver by representatives of states that retained virtually untrammeled sovereignty. By July 1783, with Congress sitting in Annapolis, only South Carolina -- seven decades later, it would be the least cooperative state -- had paid its full assessment to the national treasury. Of the other 12, only Washington's Virginia had contributed half its quota. The two weightiest states, Pennsylvania and New York, had contributed one-fifth and one-twentieth, respectively.

What united the barely united states was 6 feet 3 inches of American in a blue coat and buff trousers, carrying a sword and buckle engraved ``1757'' that testified to his frontier service for the British against the French, whose fleet, 24 years later, sealed the victory at Yorktown. If on his trip home this 51-year-old man had caught a chill and died, as he would do 16 Decembers later, national unity might have been unattainable.

The story of his triumphal trip home, itself an act of nation-building, is well-told by historian Stanley Weintraub in his new book ``General Washington's Christmas Farewell: A Mount Vernon Homecoming, 1783.'' It evokes the frail seedling from which the mighty American nation grew. In a seven-year (1775-81) war in which fewer than 4,500 American soldiers died in combat, Washington lost more battles than he won. But he won the battle that mattered most -- the last one -- and adulation unlike any ever bestowed on an American.

His homeward journey paused at Harlem, a Manhattan village nine miles north of New York City, a community of 21,000 on the island's southern tip that Washington had never captured. As Washington's party entered the city, Loyalist emigrants were being ferried to departing British ships in the harbor. A British officer marveled:

``Here, in this city, we have had an army for more than seven years, and yet could not keep the peace of it. Scarcely a day or night passed without tumults. Now we are gone, everything is in quietness and safety. These Americans are a curious, original people; they know how to govern themselves, but nobody else can govern them.''

Then it was four days to Philadelphia, passing along what is now U.S. Route 1 through difficult New Jersey. In 1776 Washington had urged Jerseymen in the village of Newark to join his cause. Thirty did -- but 300 joined the British. In Annapolis he surrendered his commission after a ball at which, Weintraub reports, fashionable ladies wore their hair in the Dress a l'Independence -- 13 curls at the neck.

Washington's journey to Mount Vernon, which he reached after dark, December 24, was a moveable feast of florid rhetoric and baked oysters. It also was a foretaste of what was to be, for more than a century, his central place in America's civic liturgy. Abraham Lincoln wore a ring containing a sliver from the casket Washington was buried in until his body was moved to its current tomb in 1831. At his Inauguration in 1897 William McKinley wore a ring containing strands of Washington's hair.

Presidents no longer inspire such reverence, perhaps because America is different, perhaps because presidents are.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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