Thursday, March 03, 2005


George Washington and American History

It’s National Anthem Day. In 1931 the Star Spangled Banner was adopted as the national anthem. As many of us know, the song started out as a poem, written by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key while watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a British ship during the War of 1812. Fort McHenry held, and Baltimore was not sacked by the British, and the poem was set to the tune of a popular drinking song. Or so it is said. I have a little difficulty imagining a bunch of 19th century tavern patrons hitting those high notes.

Anyway, in what seems an appropriate coincidence, over at The Irish Brigade they have posted an excellent piece on the importance of George Washington in history, and the pitiful ignorance of America’s youth with respect to history, quoting from, and linking to, an article by Kathleen Parker:

Six of ten couldn’t say why the Pilgrims came to America. Only seven percent of fourth graders could name “an important event” that took place in Philadelphia in 1776. When seniors at the nation’s top 55 universities were asked to name America’s victorious general at the Battle of Yorktown, only 34 percent named George Washington.

These depressing statistics, which Mount Vernon executive director James Rees rattles off with thinly disguised ennui, shouldn’t be surprising considering that Washington today receives one-tenth the coverage in textbooks that he received 30 years ago. Rees tells of one textbook that offers fewer than 50 lines of text about Washington, but 213 about Marilyn Monroe.

O’Neil briefly addresses Washington’s shortcomings, and his sucesses, as a military commander, and offers up some concise analysis of Washington’s importance in historical political events:

The later writings of both the founders themselves and the political leaders throughout the states make it clear that few really believed there would ever be another "President". Most assumed Washington would serve for life, and either designate a successor in a sort of quasi-monarchy, or hold things together long enough for the states to figure out a new arrangement. Just as he had stunned the world by surrendering his commission, Washington stunned the world by not running for a third term, forcing the federal government to actually establish a precedent for peaceful electoral succession while he was still alive. He was keenly aware of the importance of that act.

And he also provides some not-so-well-known facts about Washington, the man:

The truth is, without any expectation of an inheritance because of the application of primogeniture, Washington had to learn a trade. He became a part-time soldier, and a full-time surveyor, and was as much frontiersman as Virginia aristocrat. He made long journeys into the wilderness of Virginia's western holdings, and bought vast tracts of land far from civilization, which later made him very wealthy. Washington was well known to frontiersmen and settlers along the Ohio River. He loved to dance, he could, when he so chose, drink and curse with the best (or worst) of them, and he loved to play cards. For money. He kept meticulous accounts, and he always collected...and paid promptly.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing which, considering the subject, is not really very long.

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