Aug. 26, 2011
Commuting to Washington, D.C. can be nerve-wracking on the best of days. But when the hour-long commute drags on for more than two hoursas it did this week on the day of our earthquakeit might be especially trying. Motorists are not happy campers when traffic approaches gridlock downtown in the Capitol.
I go slightly out of my way, however, to drive daily down Pennsylvania Avenue. I count it a privilege to pass by the stately Capitol dome with its Statue of Freedom standing proudly on top. The Capitol was planned by George Washington. Hard to believe now, but there were no great domed buildings in America when His Excellency opted for a Roman architectural style. His favorite play was Cato, an English tragedy about a great Roman champion of republican virtue.
As trying as the drive on earthquake Tuesday might have been, the way was eased by my carpooling with George Washington. Ive been listening to Ron Chernows Pulitzer Prize-winning book-on-disk, George Washington: A Life. Its a wonderful book and the latest of some seven hundred Ive been able to read during fifteen years of commuting.
Chernows Washington is a full-blooded figure. He has faults, to be sure, but his virtues shine forth. Chernow describes Washingtons incredible bravery. Young Col. Washington dashes into the teeth of battle during the French & Indian War. He even rushes into a hail of bullets, slashing with his sword against the muskets of British regulars to keep them from shooting their allies, the heroic Virginia militiamen.
Washington studiously avoids all boasting of his military exploits, but in a private letter to his brother Jackie, he notes that he had two horses shot out from under him on the Pennsylvania frontier and four bullet holes in his coat following the 1755 battle that left nearly 700 British and Virginia militiamen dead. It was the worst defeat British arms had suffered in the history of North America. Washington organized the retreat after the death of Gen. Edward Braddock. He even ordered his wagons to drive over Braddocks grave so that Indians would not find it and desecrate the body.
Ron Chernow follows Washingtons life where the evidence leads. We wince when we read that the young Washington sold recalcitrant slaves for shipment to the West Indies. Thats where the expression sold down the river comes from. And its terrible to read that he hanged two deserters from his Virginia militia company. Washington was a stern taskmaster. He expected to be obeyed. But everyone respected him for his justice and growing humanity.
Chernow gives us Washingtons religious views. You would not find him leading prayers, as Gov. Rick Perry recently did. But neither would he spurn public expressions of fidelity and duty to God.
However ecumenical in his approach to religion, Washington never doubted its signal importance in a republic, regarding it as the basis of morality and the foundation of any well-ordered polity...For Washington, morality was so central to Christianitys message that no man who is profligate in his morals or a bad member of the civil community can possibly be a true Christian.
If Washingtons constant suspicion that he is being cheated is a character flaw, it is mightily tempered by seeing what Washington did with his vast wealth.
George and Martha Washington never turned away beggars at their doorstep. Let no one go away hungry...provided it does not encourage them in idleness.
Who would have thought George Washington was the original compassionate conservative? FRC has been highlighting Real Compassion on our website to show how
Christians can make a difference in their own communities. The German poet Goethe, a Washington contemporary, once said that if each one sweeps his own doorstep, the world would be clean.
Washington spent countless hours as a Vestryman for Christ Church, in Alexandria, and for Truro parish in Fairfax. In those times, the Vestry was the committee of Christian laymen who looked after widows and orphans, who helped the indigent get back on their feet. But they were expected to get back on their feet. It was no charity to keep them dependent and subordinate.
During the great welfare reform fight in Washington of 1994-1996, former radical Adam Walinsky came to FRC. This ex-speechwriter for Robert Kennedy said he didnt agree with most of our social agenda, but he did agree with us on welfare reform. If you dont think welfare harms the morals of a family, just consider the English royal family.
Thats a stunner. George Washington considered the English royal family, too. He found it increasingly difficult to pledge his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to the English royals who governed so foolishly and were so careless of their American colonists rights and liberties.
Washington chafed at British royal red tape. He hated the Proclamation of 1763 that declared the Trans-Appalachian West off limits to colonial expansion. King George III had not risked his regal neck fighting on that frontier. Who was he to bar settlement of it?
Washington also denounced British mercantile regulations. In his efforts to reduce his dependence on slave labor, Washington began growing wheat at Mount Vernon and marketing fish. He created a small fishing fleet on the Potomac. The best salt for preserving fish came from Lisbon, Portugal, but British regulations forced him to buy inferior salt from Liverpool.
Ill join with my conservative friends in denouncing federal intrusions and usurpations. We dont need, for example, a wasteful and unconstitutional federal education department. But youll never see me denouncing Washington. I have too much reverence for our Founding Father for that.
Ron Chernows book is 903 pages long. The audio version is 33 discs long. I expect to be carpooling with George Washington for weeks to come. Im honored to be in his company