Thursday, January 17, 2008

George Washington (1732-1799)

David Seaton's News Links
Spanish newspapers are famous for including all sorts of inducements included with the paper: DVDs, books, games etc; free or nearly free. My paper, El Mundo is running a series of booklets with speeches by famous statesmen. One of them is a collection of speeches by George Washington, and they have asked me to write an introduction to it... Which I have done. I usually do something like this first in English and then rewrite it in Spanish.

I thought I would post the first English language draft to News Links. Here it is. DS

George Washington (1732-1799)

“First in peace, first in war, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
General Henry Lee (father of General Robert E. Lee), “The funeral eulogy of George Washington

George Washington, the first President of the United States, the “Father of his Country”, is the great American icon par excellence. The unfinished “Athenaeum” portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, which adorns the ubiquitous dollar bill, is the same painting whose endlessly reproduced image has hung on millions of school classroom walls in the United States for generations. What American schoolboy has not sat squirming under the unblinkingly steady, stern, imperious, but not unkindly, gaze of Stuart’s Washington? The broad, intelligent forehead, the powerful nose, the granite jaw, the lips pressed firmly against his famous, wooden false teeth, are powerfully imprinted on the American subconscious.

In American legend Washington symbolizes perfect honesty and almost superhuman integrity. An enduring part of American folklore is the totally apocryphal story of “George Washington and the Cherry Tree” about the supposedly angelic, infant Washington, who at the age of six was given a little hatchet and promptly chopped down his father’s favorite cherry tree. This is how the famous story goes:
"George,'' said his father, "do you know who has killed my beautiful little cherry tree in the garden?"

I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! I did cut it with my little hatchet.''

The anger died out of his father's face, and taking the boy tenderly in his arms, he said"My son, that you should not be afraid to tell the truth is more to me than a thousand trees! Yes - though they were blossomed with silver and had leaves of the purest gold!''
Although he never actually said it and though it has, in our cynical age of irony, become little more than a joke, "I cannot tell a lie, father, you know I cannot tell a lie! “, is probably Washington’s most famous quote. Si non e vero e ben trovato, because Washington’s honesty was, in fact, proverbial. In his first inaugural address on assuming the presidency in 1789 he referred to his salary in the following way:
“When I was first honored with a call into the service of my country, then on the eve of an arduous struggle for its liberties, the light in which I contemplated my duty required that I should renounce every pecuniary compensation. From this resolution I have in no instance departed; and being still under the impressions which produced it, I must decline as inapplicable to myself any share in the personal emoluments which may be indispensably included in a permanent provision for the executive department, and must accordingly pray that the pecuniary estimates for the station in which I am placed may during my continuance in it be limited to such actual expenditures as the public good may be thought to require.”
In an age when most former presidents and prime ministers make fortunes with their memoirs, speeches or consulting fees, Washington’s refusing to accept any pay for governing the United States of America sounds as fantastic and improbable as any myth of the Hindu god Rama or an inhabitant of the Greek Olympus.

By far Washington most famous speech is his “Farewell Address” on the 17th of September of 1796 after refusing a third term in power. For many Americans today, much of what Washington said then sounds startlingly prophetic, as if some benevolent ghost had suddenly appeared to warn his loved ones among the living of disaster.

Looking at the hole in the New York Skyline where the Twin Towers once stood, observing the hecatomb of Iraq and wondering at the seeming helplessness of the United State in solving the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians, these following lines seem positively uncanny:

“A passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation."
Obviously, talking this way, George Washington would not have an easy time getting elected President of the United States today or anything else in Washington.

Sitting there stiffly and solemnly in his powdered wig gazing out from the much devalued dollar bill, as he stoically gets passed from hand to hand, it is difficult not to feel certain tenderness for the specter that speaks across the centuries in this manner.
"In offering to you, my countrymen, these counsels of an old and affectionate friend, I dare not hope they will make the strong and lasting impression I could wish; that they will control the usual current of the passions, or prevent our nation from running the course, which has hitherto marked the destiny of nations. But, if I may even flatter myself, that they may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism; this hope will be a full recompense for the solicitude for your welfare, by which they have been dictated."

No comments: