Will George Washington Be Cancelled at Washington and Lee?
If virtue can secure happiness in another world, he is happy. In this, the seal is now put upon his glory. It is now no longer in jeopardy from the fickleness of fortune.
Eulogy of George Washington
January 2, 1800
But is the glory of George Washington in jeopardy at Washington and Lee? If the Woke leadership now ensconced there succeeds in the erasure of Robert E. Lee from recognition at the school, it becomes a question whether the great Washington himself will then suffer the same ignominious fate. It is easy to imagine, given the scorched earth methods of the Woke movement, that if Lee’s name is ultimately removed from that of the university, the opportunity will be taken to remove Washington’s as well, accomplishing a clean sweep of both men into that pit of disgrace and oblivion reserved by the Woke for all former slave owners. Or will Washington prove too weighty a monument to topple, and his memory endure at Washington and Lee, if not as a namesake, then in subdued but otherwise honorable regard. To help in answering this question, a brief review of the salient features of Washington’s life, character, and achievements — to delineate again who he was and what he did — may renew our perspective on the man enough to allow a fair judgment on his prospects of survival at Washington and Lee.
Washington was born in 1732 into a respectable, moderately wealthy Virginia family. Circumstances consequent to the untimely death of his father denied him the education in England enjoyed by his older brothers. His formal education, therefore, ended in his early teens, leaving him without the scholarly erudition of a Hamilton, Jefferson, or Madison; but he advanced upon them in time and became fully their equal, if not their superior, in the pragmatic realism and judgment of men so essential and conspicuous in his later career.
By most appraisals, Washington does not stand among the greatest military leaders of history. His record against British forces in the Revolutionary War shows that of his seventeen or so engagements that rose in size and consequence to the dignity of “battles,” six were victories, seven were defeats, and four were draws. That he held together his rag-tag, chronically ill-supplied army against a well-trained and well provided professional British force is little short of a miracle, for which he repeatedly gave divine interposition the credit. Handicapped as he was, Washington ultimately succeeded by employing the “Fabian” tactics of harassing and wearing down his opponent in small engagements, attacking only when success and safety were reasonably assured, being careful always to avoid throwing his whole force into an all-out, winner-take-all pitched battle with the British, at the risk of total annihilation of his army and certain defeat of the American cause (thus following antiquity’s example of the Roman general Fabius in his long campaign against the initially undefeatable Carthaginian veterans of Hannibal). Still, however, Washington’s final and decisive victory over Cornwallis at Yorktown, which effectively ended the Revolutionary War, was made possible only with the help of French troops and a blockade of Yorktown by the French navy.
In the afterglow of final victory at Yorktown, when Washington likely — as some indeed hoped — could have established himself as a king, he quickly surrendered his military commission to Congress and returned to Mt. Vernon a private citizen. This signal refusal to abuse the power in his hands was again displayed in the genuine humility and hesitancy with which he accepted each of his two terms as President; as well as in the restraint he consistently exercised in the application of presidential authority; and finally in his refusal to accept a third term in the office; thus setting the precedent for peaceful, uncontested transfers of power in U.S. governance.
During his presidency, Washington continued to evince the traits of personal inclination, character, and ability present in him throughout his life. He was not a particularly good public speaker, but although he may have lacked the polish of Hamilton or Jefferson as a writer, his writing often rose to impressive heights of eloquence and force, as numerous of his personal letters and speeches attest. In circles of debate, he commonly sat silent, speaking very little even at the 1787 Constitutional Convention at which he presided; but he listened, learned, and formed his own astute judgments on matters concerning the welfare of the nation. With the assistance and advice of a well-chosen and able cabinet, Washington’s overriding concerns as president were to ensure by cautious oversight and firm guidance that the new governmental system of the infant nation be given space to mature to stability, and that the nation be kept out of foreign entanglements and alliances while it gained strength sufficient to fend off incursion and bullying by European powers. In this he succeeded spectacularly, against long odds, making himself, in both the military and political spheres, richly deserving of the title of “Father of his Country;” and eminently worthy of Henry Lee’s eulogistic tribute to him as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
As much revered as his military and political accomplishments, however, and underlying them all, were Washington’s celebrated virtues of character. Although the tale of young Washington’s “I cannot tell a lie” admission to his father that he had cut down the cherry tree is doubtless apocryphal, it nevertheless expressed the truth of Washington’s unassailable veracity. In an August 22, 1788, letter to Alexander Hamilton he wrote “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.” And again, in a letter to John Cochran, dated August 16, 1779, “I hate deception, even where the imagination only is concerned.”
Washington’s unimpeachable moral probity gave even greater effect to his dignity of manner and impeccable courtesy. What some considered his aloofness was, as he confessed in one of his letters, a conscious attempt at keeping a judicious distance from associates; he thought that a too great familiarity can lead to the loss of that respect essential to the success of a leader. Strangers, in particular, often described Washington as “cold” and “remote.” Even as a very young officer in the Virginia Militia, Marcus Cunliffe, one of his more recent biographers, writes of the officers and soldiers in his regiment that Washington “was admired from a distance. They looked up to him, not sideways at him. Washington was no one’s buddy; he was not ‘just folks’.” These early colleagues saw in the young Washington the bravery, the unshakeable devotion to duty, and the sober uprightness of conduct that marked the rest of his life. Among closer acquaintances Washington could be genial, the very embodiment of courtesy. Abigail Adams, she and her husband being intimate acquaintances of the Washingtons during his presidency, found the man not at all forbidding, and describes him as “polite with dignity, affable without familiarity, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity, modest, wise, & good.” There were indeed a few, such as Lafayette, to whom Washington opened his heart freely, as he no doubt did in his wartime letters to his wife, Martha (all of which letters she inexplicably burned before her death).
The foregoing picture hardly captures the full scope and grandeur of the life of George Washington, but perhaps brings the man back into clear enough focus that some judgment can be made of his future at Washington and Lee. What quickly becomes apparent is that the very nation whose successful birthing was Washington’s finest achievement is being attacked by the Woke, on grounds that from its inception it was irretrievably polluted by white supremacist racism, for which the only remedy is a revolutionary dismantling and elitist transmogrification of what our Founding Fathers built — with Washington condemned for his role as the most eminent of the Founding Fathers. On a deeper level, the very virtues of character that so distinguished Washington, and so elevated him in the eyes of generations of Americans and the world at large, are not in evidence in Washington and Lee’s Woke leaders, who through repeated instances of lack of transparency in their campaign to erase Lee, have practiced a kind of deception and underhand dealing (coupled with repeated affronts to the courtesies of common civility) that would have been anathema to George Washington. It has too often been the fate of men like Washington that it is their goodness itself that brings upon them censure, hatred, and condemnation. Too frequently, those who are not good, will despise the good merely for their goodness, and seek to destroy examples of virtuous conduct revelatory of their own evil ways.
In short, nothing George Washington either was or did, is compatible with the toxic Woke miasma now infesting Washington and Lee. Unless the Woke reign at the school can be stopped, George Washington will almost certainly share the fate being meted out to Robert E. Lee.
Kenneth G. Everett, ’64
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