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In moral qualities, the character of George Washington is the most truly dignified that was ever presented to the respect and admiration of mankind…

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Washington and the Generals of the American Revolution, by Rufus Wilmot Griswold and William Gilmore Simms (1847).

george-washingtonAn attentive examination of the whole subject, and of all that can contribute to the formation of a sound opinion, results in the belief that General Washington’s mental abilities illustrate the very highest type of greatness. His mind, probably, was one of the very greatest that was ever given to mortality. Yet it is impossible to establish that position by a direct analysis of his character, or conduct, or productions. When we look at the incidents or the results of that great career—when we contemplate the qualities by which it is marked, from its beginning to its end—the foresight which never was surprised, the judgment which nothing could deceive, the wisdom whose resources were incapable of exhaustion—combined with a spirit as resolute in its official duties as it was moderate in its private pretensions, as indomitable in its public temper as it was gentle in its personal tone—we are left in wonder and reverence. But when we would enter into the recesses of that mind— when we would discriminate upon its construction, and reason upon its operations—when we would tell how it was composed, and why it excelled—we are entirely at fault. The processes of Washington’s understanding are entirely hidden from us. What came from it, in counsel or in action, was the life and glory of his country; what went on within it, is shrouded in impenetrable concealment. Such elevation in degree, of wisdom, amounts almost to a change of kind, in nature, and detaches his intelligence from the sympathy of ours. We cannot see him as he was, because we are not like him. The tones of the mighty bell were heard with the certainty of Time itself, and with a force that vibrates still upon the air of life, and will vibrate for ever. But the clock-work, by which they were regulated and given forth, we can neither see nor understand. In fact, his intellectual abilities did not exist in an analytical and separated form; but in a combined and concrete state. They “moved altogether when they moved at all.” They were in no degree speculative, but only practical. They could not act at all in the region of imagination, but only upon the field of reality. The sympathies of his intelligence dwelt exclusively in the national being and action. Its interests and energies were absorbed in them. He was nothing out of that sphere because he was every thing there. The extent to which he was identified with the country is unexampled in the relations of individual men to the community. During the whole period of his life, he was the thinking part of the nation. He was its mind; it was his image and illustration. If we would classify and measure him, it must be with nations, and not with individuals.

This extraordinary nature of Washington’s capacities—this impossibility of analyzing and understanding the elements and methods of his wisdom—have led some persons to doubt whether, intellectually, he was of great superiority; but the public—the community—never doubted of the transcendant eminence of Washington’s abilities. From the first moment of his appearance as the chief, the recognition of him, from one end of the country to the other, as The Man—the leader, the counsellor, the infallible in suggestion and in conduct—was immediate and universal. From that moment to the close of the scene, the national confidence in his capacity was as spontaneous, as enthusiastic, as immovable, as it was in his integrity. Particular persons, affected by the untoward course of events, sometimes questioned his sufficiency; but the nation never questioned it, nor would allow it to be questioned Neither misfortune, nor disappointment, nor accidents, nor delay, nor the protracted gloom of years, could avail to disturb the public trust in him. It was apart from circumstances; it was beside the action of caprice; it was beyond all visionary, and above all changeable feelings. It was founded on nothing extraneous; not upon what he had said or done, but upon what he was. They saw something in the man, which gave them assurance of a nature and destiny of the highest elevation—something inexplicable, but which inspired a complete satisfaction. We feel that this reliance was wise and right; but why it was felt, or why it was right, we are as much to seek as those who came under the direct impression of his personal presence. It is not surprising, that the world recognizing in this man a nature and a greatness which philosophy cannot explain, should revere him almost to religion.

The distance and magnitude of those objects which are too far above us to be estimated directly—such as stars–are determined by their parallax. By some process of that kind we may form an approximate notion of Washington’s greatness. We may measure him against the great events in which he moved; and against the great men, among whom, and above whom, his figure stood like a tower. It is agreed that the war of American Independence is one of the most exalted, and honourable, and difficult achievements related in history. Its force was contributed by many; but its grandeur was derived from Washington. His character and wisdom gave unity, and dignity, and effect to the irregular, and often divergent enthusiasm of others. His energy combined the parts; his intelligence guided the whole: His perseverance, and fortitude, and resolution, were the inspiration and support of all. In looking back over that period, his presence seems to fill the whole scene; his influence predominates throughout; his character is reflected from every thing. Perhaps nothing less than his immense weight of mind could have kept the national system, at home, in that position which it held, immovably, for seven years; perhaps nothing but the august respectability which his demeanour threw around the American cause abroad, would have induced a foreign nation to enter into an equal alliance with us upon terms that contributed in a most important degree to our final success, or would have caused Great Britain to feel that no great indignity was suffered in admitting the claim to national existence of a people who had such a representative as Washington. What but the most eminent qualities of mind and feeling—discretion superhuman—readiness of invention, and dexterity of means, equal to the most desperate affairs—endurance, self-control, regulated ardour, restrained passion, caution mingled with boldness, and all the contrarieties of moral excellence—could have expanded the life of an individual into a career such as this?

If we compare him with the great men who were his contemporaries throughout the nation; in an age of extraordinary personages, Washington was unquestionably the first man of the time in ability. Review the correspondence of General Washington—that sublime monument of intelligence and integrity—scrutinize the public history and the public men of that era, and you will find that in all the wisdom that was accomplished or was attempted, Washington was before every man in his suggestions of the plan, and beyond every one in the extent to which he contributed to its adoption. In the field, all the able generals acknowledged his superiority, and looked up to him with loyalty, reliance, and reverence; the others, who doubted his ability, or conspired against his sovereignty, illustrated, in their own conduct, their incapacity to be either his judges or his rivals. In the state, Adams, Jay, Rutledge, Pinckney, Morris—these are great names; but there is not one whose wisdom does not vail to his. His superiority was felt by all these persons, and was felt by Washington himself, as a simple matter of fact, as little a subject of question, or a cause of vanity, as the eminence of his personal stature. His appointment as commander-in-chief, was the result of no design on his part, and of no efforts on the part of his friends; it seemed to take place spontaneously. He moved into the position, because there was a vacuum which no other could supply: in it, he was not sustained by government, by a party, or by connexions; he sustained himself; and then he sustained every thing else. He sustained Congress against the army, and the army against the injustice of Congress. The brightest mind among his contemporaries was Hamilton’s; a character which cannot be contemplated without frequent admiration, and constant affection. His talents took the form of genius, which Washington’s did not. But active, various, and brilliant, as the faculties of Hamilton were, whether viewed in the precocity of youth, or in the all accomplished elegance of maturer life—lightning-quick as his intelligence was to see through every subject that came before it, and vigorous as it was in constructing the argumentation by which other minds were to be led, as upon a shapely bridge, over the obscure depths across which his had flashed in a moment—fertile and sound in schemes, ready in action, splendid in display, as he was—nothing is more obvious and certain than that when Mr. Hamilton approached Washington, he came into the presence of one who surpassed him in the extent, in the comprehension, the elevation, the sagacity, the force, and the ponderousness of his mind, as much as he did in the majesty of his aspect, and the grandeur of his step. The genius of Hamilton was a flower, which gratifies, surprises, and enchants; the intelligence of Washington was a stately tree, which in the rarity and true dignity of its beauty is as superior, as it is in its dimensions.

In military subjects, the abilities of Washington were, unquestionably, of a high order, and they were various and complete. In their character, they were fitted to the circumstances and the time in which he was called upon to act. The wisdom of his system was vindicated, sometimes in the success of his counsels, and sometimes in the disasters of those who departed from them. The peculiar nature of the contest—the slight and frail military establishment over which he presided—the infinite political and social difficulties with which his operations were complicated, rendered a profound caution the first dictate of policy. The object to be accomplished was, in effect, a revolution of opinions—a change of national relations. Until that was realized, the revolutionary war could not be at an end. The most brilliant victory in the field would not have gained the purpose of the Americans; a single complete defeat would probably have frustrated it for ever. It must be remembered that Washington was in a situation in which time was his most important auxiliary; the war was in its nature a prolonged one; and, to maintain a military resistance, which should be always respectable in its force, and occasionally formidable in its operations, was all that a wise mind could have proposed to itself. The plan of the campaign which preceded the loss of New York, cannot, in a military point of view, be considered as judicious; but, as Napoleon observed with regard to his delay at Moscow, it was more important at that time to act upon political than upon military considerations. The operations in New Jersey, in 1776-7, exhibit the highest range of military science. The movements of Washington, from the moment when Fort Lee was abandoned, and he extricated himself by a series of prompt retreats from the dangers into which he was thrown by the advance of Lord Cornwallis, till, at the opportune moment, he fell upon the enemy, in their divided state along the Delaware, and, soon after, struck a part of Lord Cornwallis’s army at Princeton, and delivered himself from the peril of the other part—the whole campaign of that month—may be set beside any campaign that is recorded in history. The promptness with which the plan against Cornwallis, at Yorktown, was conceived, and the energy with which it was executed, entitle the commander-in-chief to the highest commendation.

In moral qualities, the character of Washington is the most truly dignified that was ever presented to the respect and admiration of mankind. He was one of the few entirely good men in whom goodness had no touch of weakness. He was one of the few rigorously just men whose justice was not commingled with any of the severity of personal temper. The elevation, and strength, and greatness of his feelings were derived from nature; their moderation was the effect of reflection and discipline. His temper, by nature, was ardent, and inclined to action. His passions were quick, and capable of an intensity of motion, which, when it was kindled by either intellectual or moral indignation, amounted almost to fury. But how rarely—how less than rarely—was any thing of this kind exhibited in his public career! How restrained from all excess which reason could reprove, or virtue condemn, or good taste reject, were these earnest impulses, in the accommodation of his nature to “that great line of duty” which he had set up as the course of his life. Seen in his public duties, his attitude and character—the one elevated above familiarity, the other purged of all littlenesses—present a position and an image almost purely sublime.

No airy and light passion stirs abroad
To ruffle or to soothe him; all are quelled
Beneath a mightier, sterner stress of mind:
Wakeful he sits, and lonely, and unmoved,
Beyond the arrows, views, or shouts of men;
As oftentimes an eagle, when the sun
Throws o’er the varying earth his early ray,
Stands solitary, stands immovable
Upon some highest cliff, and rolls his eye,
Clear, constant, unobservant, unabased,
In the cold light, above the dews of morn.

But when viewed in the gentler scenes of domestic and friendly relation, there are traits which give loveliness to dignity, and add grace to veneration; like the leaves and twigs which cluster around the trunk and huge branches of the colossal elm, making that beautiful which else were only grand. His sentiments were quick and delicate; his refinement exquisite. His temper was as remote from plebeian, as his principles were opposite to democratic. If his public bearing had something of the solemnity of puritanism, the sources of his social nature were the spirit and maxims of a cavalier. His demeanour towards all men illustrated, in every condition, that “finest sense of justice which the mind can form.” IN All THINGS ADMIRABLE, IN ALL THINGS TO BE IMITATED; IN SOME THINGS SCARCE IMITABLE AND ONLY TO BE ADMIRED.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with gracious permission of The Abbeville Institute (February 2016). 

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