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This last chapter cannot begin more fitly than by quoting again the words of Mr. McMaster: "George Washington is an unknown man." Mr. McMaster might have added that to no man in our history has greater injustice of a certain kind been done, or more misunderstanding been meted out, than to Washington, and although this sounds like the merest paradox, it is nevertheless true. From the hour when the door of the tomb at Mount Vernon closed behind his coffin to the present instant, the chorus of praise and eulogy has never ceased, but has swelled deeper and louder with each succeeding year. He has been set apart high above all other men, and reverenced with the unquestioning veneration accorded only to the leaders of mankind and the founders of nations; and in this very devotion lies one secret at least of the fact that, while all men have praised Washington, comparatively few have understood him. He has been lifted high up into a lonely greatness, and unconsciously put outside the range of human sympathy. He has been accepted as a being as nearly perfect as it is given to man to be, but our warm personal interest has been reserved for other and lesser men who seemed to be nearer to us in their virtues and their errors alike. Such isolation, lofty though it be, is perilous and leads to grievous misunderstandings. From it has come the widespread idea that Washington was cold, and as devoid of human sympathies as he was free from the common failings of humanity.
Of this there will be something to say presently, but meantime there is another more prolific source of error in regard to Washington to be considered. Men who are loudly proclaimed to be faultless always excite a certain kind of resentment. It is a dangerous eminence for any one to occupy. The temples of Greece are in ruins, and her marvellous literature is little more than a collection of fragments, but the feelings of the citizens who exiled Aristides because they were weary of hearing him called "just," exist still, unchanged and unchangeable. Washington has not only been called " just," but he has had every other good quality attributed to him by countless biographers and eulogists with an almost painful iteration, and the natural result has followed. Many persons have felt the sense of fatigue which the Athenians expressed practically by their oyster shells, and have been led to cast doubts on Washington's perfection as the only consolation for their own sense of injury. Then, again, Washington's fame has been so overshadowing, and his greatness so immutable, that he has been very inconvenient to the admirers and the biographers of other distinguished men. From these two sources, from the general jealousy of the classic Greek variety, and the particular jealousy born of the necessities of some other hero, much adverse and misleading criticism has come. It has never been a safe or popular amusement to assail Washington directly, and this course usually has been shunned; but although the attacks have been veiled they have none the less existed, and they have been all the more dangerous because they were insidious.
In his lifetime Washington had his enemies and detractors in abundance. During the Revolution he was abused and intrigued against, thwarted and belittled, to a point which posterity in general scarcely realizes. Final and conclusive victory brought an end to this, and he passed to the presidency amid a general acclaim. Then the attacks began again. Their character has been shown in a previous chapter, but they were of no real moment except as illustrations of the existence and meaning of party divisions. The ravings of Bache and Freneau, and the coarse insults of Giles, were all totally unimportant in themselves. They merely define the purposes and character of the party which opposed Washington, and but for him would be forgotten. Among his eminent contemporaries, Jefferson and Pickering, bitterly opposed in all things else, have left memoranda and letters reflecting upon the abilities of their former chief. Jefferson disliked him because he blocked his path, but with habitual caution he never proceeded beyond a covert sneer implying that Washington's mental powers, at no time very great, were impaired by age during his presidency, and that he was easily deceived by practised intriguers. Pickering, with more boldness, set Washington down as commonplace, not original in his thought, and vastly inferior to Hamilton, apparently because he was not violent, and did not make up his mind before he knew the facts.
Adverse contemporary criticism, however, is slight in amount and vague in character; it can be readily dismissed, and it has in no case weight enough to demand much consideration. Modern criticism of the same kind has been even less direct, but is much more serious and cannot be lightly passed over. It invariably proceeds by negations setting out with an apparently complete acceptance of Washington's greatness, and then assailing him by telling us what he was not. Few persons who have not given this matter a careful study realize how far criticism of this sort has gone, and there is indeed no better way of learning what Washington really was than by examining the various negations which tell us what he was not.
Let us take the gravest first. It has been confidently asserted that Washington was not an American in anything but the technical sense. This idea is more diffused than, perhaps, would be generally supposed, and it has also been formally set down in print, in which we are more fortunate than in many other instances where the accusation has not got beyond the elusive condition of loose talk.
In that most noble poem, the " Commemoration Ode," Mr. Lowell speaks of Lincoln as " the first American." The poet's winged words fly far, and find a resting-place in many minds. This idea has become widespread, and has recently found fuller expression in Mr. Clarence King's prefatory note to the great life of Lincoln by Hay and Nicolay.1 Mr. King says: "Abraham Lincoln was the first American to reach the lonely height of immortal fame. Before him, within the narrow compass of our history, were but two preeminent names, — Columbus the discoverer, and Washington the founder; the one an Italian seer, the other an English country gentleman. In a narrow sense, of course, Washington was an American. . . . For all that, he was English in his nature, habits, moral standards, and social theories; in short, in all points which, aside from mere geographical position, make up a man, he was as thorough-going a British colonial gentleman as one could find anywhere beneath the Union Jack. The genuine American of Lincoln's type came later. . . . George Washington, an English commoner, vanquished George, an English king."
In order to point his sentence and prove his first
1 Mr. Matthew Arnold, and more recently Professor Goldwin Smith, have hoth spoken of Washington as an Englishman. I do not mention this to discredit the statements of Mr. Lowell or Mr. King, but merely to indicate how far this mistaken idea has travelled.