Friday, April 23

Lodge's Washington

According to the majority of eighteenth and nineteenth century historians, the most remarkable event during America's Founding Era did not take place on a battlefield. It did not occur during the course of the constitutional debates. It was not recorded during the great diplomatic negotiations with France, Spain, or Holland. It did not take place at sea, or in the assemblies of the states, or in the counsels of war. It was instead when the field commander of the continental armies surrendered his commission to the congressional authorities at Annapolis.

It was instead a humble demonstration of servanthood. It was when General George Washington resigned his officer's commission.

At the time, he was the idol of the country and his soldiers. The army was unpaid, and the veteran troops, well armed and fresh from their victory at Yorktown, were eager to have him take control of the disordered country. Some wanted to crown him king. Others thought to make him a dictator--rather like Cromwell had been a century earlier in England.

With the loyal support of the army and the enthusiasm of the populous, it would have been easy enough for Washington to make himself the ruler of the new nation. But instead, he resigned. He appeared before President Thomas Mifflin and his cabinet and submitted himself to their governance on December 23, 1783.

Writing of the remarkable scene that then ensued, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, exclaimed, “Which was the most splendid spectacle ever witnessed--the opening feast of Prince George in London, or the resignation of Washington? Which is the noble character for after-ages to admire--yon fribble dancing in lace and spangles, or yon hero who sheathes his sword after a life of spotless honor, a purity unreproached, a courage indomitable, and a consummate victory?”

The answer to most Americans was obvious: Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Though he had often wrangled in disagreement with his superiors over matters of military strategy, pay schedules, supply shipments, troop deployment, and the overlap of civil and martial responsibilities, there was never any question of his ultimate loyalty or allegiance. In the end, he always submitted himself to the authority God had placed over him. And that was no mean feat.

“His true greatness was evidenced,” said Henry Adams, “in the fact that he never sought greatness, but rather service.” The dean of American historians, Francis Parkman concurred that it was this “remarkable spirit of the servant” that ultimately “elevated him even higher in his countrymen's estimations than he already was.” And biographer Paul Butterfield, wrote, “He never countenanced the sin of omission when it came to duty to God or country. His was a life of constant service in the face of mankind's gravest need.” Thus, historian John Richard Green commented, “no nobler figure ever stood in the forefront of a country's life. Never did he shrink from meeting the need of the hour. He was our national guardian.”

George Washington lived a life of service. Writing at on the threshold of the twentieth century, Henry Cabot Lodge ((1850-1924) believed that a recovery of such statesmanship was the only hope for the American nation--then mired in political corruption, bureaucratic wrangling, and legislative gridlock. Thus, it was a story he was particularly eager to tell. Thankfully, it is now a story that we can all read. Lodge's magisterial biography of Washington will be republished by Cumberland House this fall.

Lodge was a wealthy Boston Brahmin--the scion of two of the most distinguished families in New England. After short stints teaching at Harvard, practicing law, and holding local political office, he served in the United States Senate for more than thirty years. He was an expert in foreign affairs and served as the Chairman of the Senate’s powerful International Relations Committee--where he gained fame following the First World War as a fierce opponent of any and all entangling alliances that might compromise the sovereignty of the United States. Indeed, Lodge almost single handedly caused the demise of Woodrow Wilson’s pet project, the League of Nations. In addition though, he was an accomplished scholar and wrote or edited a number of important works, including a rich twelve-volume anthology of the world’s greatest literary classics and definitive works on the pioneering thought of the great American Federalists Alexander Hamilton and Fisher Ames.

While at Harvard, he had become enthralled with the idea of recovering the old servant leadership ideals of Washington and the other Founding Fathers. That passion had been largely instilled in him through the lectures of Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918). Adams had long been an influential voice at Harvard, serving as an adjunct lecturer in history off and on since 1858. But it was when he was appointed Professor of Mediaeval History in 1870 that he gained an especially ardent following among students, alumni, and faculty alike--among them men such as John Morse and Theodore Roosevelt. Over the course of the next few years Adams and his enthusiastic followers bucked the trend of the scholastic and scientific modernists, emphasizing instead a much more classical approach to Moral Philosophy. In the process he revolutionized both Harvard and the discipline of history.

Morse enlisted the help of Lodge, Roosevelt, and several of the other Harvard intellectuals who had been influenced by Adams and his classical view of Moral Philosophy to put together a whole series of new biographies of the American Founders and the succeeding generations of likeminded American Patriots--of which the two-volume biography of Washington was one. The series was immediately lauded by the critics and embraced by the reading public. Several of the volumes became blockbuster bestsellers and have in the intervening years been repeatedly reprinted. But perhaps more importantly, the books helped to usher in a new era of political and social reform, which enabled the still gangly young American nation to become an undisputed world power and a beacon light of freedom to oppressed peoples everywhere.

The republication of Lodge's biography of Washington--and the whole American Statesmen Series--just over a century later is a welcome opportunity to remind yet another new generation of leaders of the great story of liberty. In an age when politicians abound but statesmen are all too rare, Lodge’s brilliant portrayal of servant leadership is timelier than ever before.

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