Friday, November 22, 2019

To Summarize That

My recent post about "George Washington's Greatest Challenge", like many of these posts, is quite long.  I still think that it was all worth writing, but since a succinct version will have its own value:

Though the conduct of his countrymen over the course of many years did lead George Washington to have serious doubts as to whether free government in America would succeed and survive, he was too dedicated to it and to his country to allow his despair to keep him from doing all that could be done for it.

It is amazing to me to see how many demonstrations can be found in Washington’s letters of both his despair and his resolve, existing simultaneously.  It seems that determination can outlive hope, and that to that fact we owe our Constitution and the union.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

George Washington's Greatest Challenge

I write this for those of you who need it most.  If you are one of these people, you will know it once you have read it.

Not long ago, I read some of George Washington's correspondence from the years 1786 and 1787.   I was surprised to find that as he considered the challenges facing America at that point in time -- of which all related in one way or another to the failure of the confederation government, a regular neglect of what was necessary in order to maintain the union, and a seemingly widespread failure of Americans themselves to appreciate as indispensable the unity of America -- Washington saw serious reason to doubt that Americans, under those circumstances, would ultimately overcome these challenges.

I do not mean to say that Washington affirmatively believed that America would fail.  I only mean that the challenges facing America in the mid-1780s, in the years immediately preceding the Constitutional Convention in 1787 (and then the Constitution's ratification) -- many resembling those that America faces today -- appeared daunting even to George Washington.  It was (as it now is) the need for Americans to unite by choice for something extraordinarily positive, overcoming the formidable obstacles to it, at a time when the immediate threat of outside military force was (as it now is) unavailable as an impetus to union.

As odd as it may seem, this type of crisis is in some ways more daunting, appears more intractable, and may more readily inspire despair, than the crisis of war, even with all of the hardship, pain, destruction, death, and horror that are known to accompany war.  These two types of challenges are very different from each other, and Washington’s letters can both show that and provide comfort and inspiration to those who are dispirited by our present crisis.

Washington had only recently finished leading the army that defeated the British Empire and won America’s Independence.  Although he (and the other Patriots) did not achieve this alone, relying only on their own strength to defeat the British, they had made the decision in favor of independence without any guarantee of their victory or survival.  They intended to seek the aid of France, but they had no assurances that they would succeed in obtaining it or that it would be adequate to overcome Great Britain.  Nevertheless, as desperate as their situation was and must constantly have felt to those who endured and fought that war, they triumphed.

Yet, only a few short years after succeeding in all of this, Washington watched with dismay as the conduct of many of his own countrymen seemed to prove them unequal to the task of governing themselves.  The union itself was dissolving, of course, and for a short time (a little time being more than enough), at least one of its constituent states was in some danger of being violently overthrown by an army consisting of a faction of its own citizens.  The spectacle led Washington to ask, if only rhetorically, whether perhaps the British and the Tories knew something that the Patriots had not: that the American people were not competent to organize and maintain their own governments.

And that is why I wrote this commentary on these quotes: As George Washington witnessed the way the most visible (due to their conduct) of his fellow Americans acted in the months leading up to the Constitutional Convention, even given the remarkable triumph that they had just achieved together in the Revolutionary War, and even though the first act of each state upon attaining Independence was to establish for its government a free democratic republic, even he -- George Washington -- could not help but entertain serious doubts as to whether the American people would succeed in self-government.

A lot of us think of George Washington as a rock, metaphorically, who would never be fatigued, never be deterred, and never fazed by any power or threat, however formidable it might be.  My point is that this is not entirely true.  Washington genuinely came to fear that what he and all the rest had fought for -- free government in America -- would fail.  This, however, is not to say that he gave up on it.  We have all heard (due to its fame) how at the end of the war, Washington freely returned to Congress the power that he had possessed and refused the power that he could easily have obtained.  A less famous fact is that as the Constitutional Convention approached a few years later, Washington even initially resisted the request that he participate in the convention.  He wanted the convention to succeed, but he believed that a different person in his place could serve as well as or better than he could himself.

Other people thought otherwise; among other things, Washington could give the convention credibility and sympathy that it otherwise would not likely have.  Such people finally convinced Washington that although there was still hope for America, it needed and deserved every advantage it could get.  They convinced him that in this case, that meant that America needed George Washington.

On that condition, Washington could not refuse, and his decision to accept that call back into the service of his country most likely gave the convention, the Constitution, and ultimately the United States what they needed in order to succeed.  My point, however, is that as well as we know how much his participation contributed to the cause, he did not agree to go to the convention because he was certain of what was to come; George Washington went to the convention because he knew it could fail, and he knew that it would most certainly fail if good people neglected it because of their doubts, or for any other reason.  Further, he knew that if it could fail -- if free government in America could fail -- it was his obligation to do everything that could be done to ensure that it would not.

It is not unusual for people who care about the future to experience doubt, and sometimes even dismay, as they watch the future form.  As I read Washington's correspondence from those years, witnessing in chronological order Washington's reactions to events, I concluded that Washington's strength was not in somehow being incapable of fear and doubt.  The source of his strength, to the extent that it is reflected in his writing, was in his determination.  The events that we witness may well justify profound doubts concerning what the future will become -- whether the shape that it is taking is something that we are prepared to allow.  George Washington (and others of America's founding generations) witnessed such events, but he persisted and (with the help of others) prevailed because whenever and to whatever extent those events led him to fear for America's future, his determination supplied what his confidence otherwise would have lacked.

And I write all of this because Washington's example has something to offer those who despair, if they can find their way to making it work for themselves.  An optimistic outlook and the will to continue are not reserved for those people (if any exist) who expect a good future to which they intend to be mere bystanders.  Though some things are admittedly beyond our control, there is more that can be done (especially with time) than most of us are used to thinking.  A good future is an end better fitting determination than anticipation alone.