This Fourth of July and throughout the weekend that follows, PBS
will be airing a fascinating look at our indispensable Founding Father,
George Washington. The man many know only as the remote and austere face on
the dollar bill was neither the most brilliant nor the most learned of the
founders. He was not a military genius like Napoleon -- in fact, he lost
most of the battles he fought. And he was not a literary genius like
Lincoln, whose words still move us. But by the end of this broadcast, if you
have not already read Richard Brookhiser's superb book, you will understand
and, yes, feel the greatness of the man. Washington may well be the greatest
American who ever lived -- and among the most admirable men of any time or
Filmmaker Michael Pack examines Washington thematically. The
first three segments analyze Washington as a warrior, a politician and a man
of charisma. Later ones look at manners and constancy. Was he a great
warrior? Certainly the sites of his great losses are not marked. The camera
takes us to the scene of a rout in Brooklyn. The British slaughtered the
undisciplined and untrained Americans. Over the unmarked mass grave now
stands an auto body shop.
But as in everything else he turned his hand to in life,
Washington soon figured out generalship. And as one history buff explains,
"He won the battles he had to win." One way he did was by drilling and
training. The notion of a ragtag guerilla army firing on British regulars is
a myth, according to Brookhiser. Washington had to professionalize the army
in order to begin winning battles.
As a politician, Washington demonstrated both high principle and
shrewd judgment again and again. In putting down the Whiskey Rebellion, for
example -- a tax revolt that many at the time compared to the Boston Tea
Party -- Washington combined a show of overwhelming force with a careful
appeal to public opinion. The rebellion, which might well have destabilized
the new country, was denied oxygen by Washington's leadership.
Like many a great leader, Washington was also a skilled actor --
the quality that is examined in the "charisma" segment. He understood the
power of his stature (at 6 feet, 3 inches, he towered over most of his
contemporaries) and his commanding manner. But he put these traits into the
service of his principles.
After the Revolutionary War was won, a revolt was brewing among
the officers of the Continental Army. Denied pay for many months, a number
were considering marching on Philadelphia to force the issue. If they had
succeeded, our experiment in ordered liberty might have been snuffed out
then and there, and the great United States of America would have become
just another military dictatorship.
Washington well understood the stakes. In a dramatic gesture
that is re-enacted for Pack's camera, he took the plotters by surprise and
showed up at their meeting. It was a brilliant performance. Washington at
first rebuked them, then indirectly appealed to their love and reverence for
him, and finally touched what Lincoln would later call "the better angels of
Washington's nature, of course, was not flawless, and the
program deals forthrightly with his greatest failing -- the ownership of
slaves. Pack's camera follows Brookhiser to the family reunion of
descendants of Washington's slaves. Though he freed them all in his will, he
unjustly profited from their labor all of his life. "Slavery was the great
crack in the American founding," Brookhiser acknowledges, and Washington's
conduct -- while not as egregious as, for example, Jefferson's (who did not
even free his slaves posthumously) -- is a stain on his memory.
Washington's greatest act -- among many -- was his insistence
upon giving up power and returning to his farm after two terms in the
presidency. Though we shrug it off today, Brookhiser points out that for the
nearly 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader had
ever done what Washington did.
Congress wanted to bury Washington in the Capitol Rotunda. The
platform that would have held his sarcophagus is still there. But Washington
declined. He understood better than his contemporaries that for this
democracy to flourish, the Capitol must not be a mausoleum for any man. His
love of liberty trumped his vanity. It's worth getting to know a man like
that better. Pack and Brookhiser have opened the door.