The popular image of George Washington as unapproachable and rather grim comes largely from his later years, when he'd had time to develop his stoicism and was, frankly, pretty miserable and in constant pain.

His stoicism only partly masked his staggering ambition -- seriously, I love the guy, but you did not want to come between him and HIS DUE, unless your ambition was to become a blot on the ground (really, only Jefferson had the personal weight to stand up to Washington and survive -- I think Jefferson was dead wrong to do so, but I can't deny that TJ was able to pull it off).  But his stoicism did mask, or perhaps even trivialize, his doubts, his uncertainties, and, quite naturally, his personal feelings.  And he was highly emotional by temperament (and not above throwing temper tantrums in private, even into his Presidency, a position that gave him more than ample opportunity to feel frustrated and despairing).

His marriage to Martha was characterized by a deep friendship and understanding, and I'd say that he probably couldn't have done better for himself in his choice, even if Martha hadn't been the richest catch in Virginia.  But there was a particular woman in his life before Martha, Sally Fairfax, whom Washington called "the passion of my youth."

Unfortunately, Sally Fairfax was Mrs. Fairfax -- and married to Washington's best friend.  There's no proof one way or the other whether anything tangible beyond flirtation passed between Washington and Sally Fairfax, but I am inclined to doubt it.  Even as a young man, Washington valued self-control and self-mastery (although these eluded him frequently); and while he was quite capable of rationalizations, I think that "cuckolding my best friend" remained well outside the sphere he would have permitted himself.  Nothing could have come of an affair, in Washington's worldview, other than the affair itself -- an insufficient justification for a little of the old felix culpa, because a wholly personal and transitory one.

But whether he renounced Mrs. F. before dallying with her or after, renounce her he certainly did.  More than perhaps any other trait (even that amazing ambition), it was this ability to swallow or sublimate his personal desires that characterized the man, and elevated him.  He wasn't the best general in the world, although he had some fine moments; he wasn't a flaming genius, although he was bright enough (intellectually, he was nowhere near Hamilton, Jefferson, or Madison -- probably not even Adams).  But what he could do, and what he did do, was suck it up when he had to.  Rather than that silly "I cannot tell a lie" pap (puh-leeze -- Washington lied PLENTY), this is the intrinsic, and rare, honesty that defined him.

And, despite that Washington was a patrician, this was and remains a virtue within the grasp of every human being -- it hangs on choice, not talent.  While Hamilton, Jefferson, and Madison pulled each other's pigtails over what the American nation would say yes to, Washington quietly demonstrated that human beings could also say noNo, Washington would not torture prisoners.  No, Washington would not persecute the English and Loyalists once the war was finished.  No, Washington would not silence the press, even when the press attacked him viciously and relentlessly.

No is easy to overlook and to underestimate.  But its presence in our national aegis is an incomparable gift.


9/30/2009 00:25:08

Franklin have been one of the first to play "aw shucks" but certainly not the last.

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9/30/2009 00:29:15

What a wonderful legacy. Thanks for characterizing these heroes as real people. I never could go for all that cherry tree hoopla but this puts him in perspective and gives him the recognition that he really deserves.

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