It was on this day in 1732 that the first President and Chief Executive of The United States of America, George Washington, was born. Often referred to by the ancient Roman honorific title “the Father of his Country,” George Washington actually deserves the honor. As “Light Horse” Harry Lee wrote at Washington’s death, he was “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it became the fashion to call into question any received wisdom about historical figures in American History, and the more revered a figure, the more downgraded it seemed they had to become. Now, I am all for a healthy skepticism when it comes to history – it is, after all, as Napoleon observed, usually written by the winners – yet I do balk when the known facts are ignored. My 11th grade U.S. History teacher asserted that Washington was a bad general, a poor politician, and a wanna-be king. These “facts” were, of course, at least incorrect, and perhaps even outright lies. (Tom Maeder was possibly trying to spur people to read on their own and form their own opinions; equally likely he just delighted in shattering icons, and didn’t let a few facts get in his way.)
As a general, Washington was no Napoleon nor Alexander; he did not have to be. He won a few pivotal battles, but it is true he lost about as many. Yet war is not a tennis tournament: it really does matter which battles you win. You can lose many minor frays if you win the important ones. Then, too, Washington’s main brilliance was in devising a very modern understanding of the realities of warfare: War is damnably expensive, and Washington shrewdly calculated that his greatest chance for success was to keep several British armies in the field for as long as possible while denying them a chance at a conclusive victory. Knowing that the fledgling United States could neither outgun nor outspend the British Empire, he nevertheless knew he could make the war more expensive than the Empire could tolerate. Washington had studied his Roman history quite thoroughly, and modeled his strategy upon Quintus Fabius Cunctator’s successful war of attrition against Hannibal. And, as we know now, Washington’s “Fabian Strategy” worked.
As a politician, George Washington ably presided over the Constitutional Convention, managing to guide a contentious and divided gathering of representatives of the several states to a successful conclusion of their mission. No other citizen of the United States commanded the necessary respect and personal affection to undertake so politically risky a post; without his leadership and the legitimacy it imposed upon the proceedings, the entire enterprise might have failed aborning.
As the first President under the Constitution, Washington established many precedents which – far from being Royal in character – showed that Washington was sincerely committed to the republic and the democratic, republican ideals upon which the nation had been founded. It was Washington, for example, who decided that The President of the United States of America would be addressed simply as “Mr. President.” Many have noted that Washington was frequently addressed as “His Excellency” during his term of office, but the address was not preferred by Washington; it was a holdover from officials and functionaries who had grown up in the British Empire, and who found old habits of titular deference hard to abandon.
Washington also established the profoundly important precedent that a president should serve no more than two terms. It is hardly a kingly ambition to voluntarily step down from power. And it is quite notable that in his will, Washington identified himself plainly as “Citizen of the United States.” Not “Former President,” not “General of the Army,” but “Citizen.” It is hard to find regal pretension in that.
In his own time, Washington was well respected in Europe, and he enjoyed an excellent reputation in Great Britain after the Revolution. In France, Napoleon himself proclaimed a period of national mourning when the news of Washington’s death reached Paris.
Much much more could be said of Washington – and of course hundreds volumes have been written – but it is enough to say that George Washington truly was a towering figure in American history, and remains truly deserving of our genuine respect and gratitude (he’d not have wanted our awe.)
Oh, and one other thing: I started by noting that many of the old facts about George Washington had been called into question in the iconoclastic 1960s and 1970s, and I noted that the facts genuinely were correct. BUT, I am quite wrong when I say the George Washington was born on this day in 1732, for he most definitely was NOT. Despite what we used to celebrate every year before it was subsumed into the rather bland and uninspiring “President’s Day,” February 22 is not George Washington’s Birthday. Old George was born on the 11th of February 1731! True.
George Washington was actually born on February 11, 1731 as reckoned by the Old Style, Julian Calendar which was then still in use in Great Britain and its colonies at the time. The old Julian Calendar, however, was flawed in its imposition of one leap-day every four years, making the average Julian year exactly 365.25 days. The physical solar year is not quite so neatly precise, being 365.2424 days long; the difference seems small, but trivial values add up over time. The Julian scheme made the calendar gain somewhat on the physical solar year. By the 1500s, the calendar was off by a full ten days and Pope Gregory the XIII decreed in early 1582 that a two-fold correction should be made: the short-term fix was to delete ten days from the year 1582. The calendar that year jumped from October 5 to October 15. The other correction was to eliminate 3 leap-years from every 100 so that only century years evenly divisible by 400 would be leap years (thus 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1700, 1800, and 1900 were not.) In this scheme, the average year works out to be 365.2425 days, an error that would add up to about a day around the year 10000. However, because the actual solar year is increasing very slightly, astronomers these days periodically add a “leap second” to the calendar, which should keep things aligned satisfactorily.
The adoption of this new calendrical scheme was uneven, but by 1587 the Catholic countries of Europe had put it in place. On continental Europe, other countries soon fell in line, the utility of the new calendar and the desirability of a uniform dating system being obvious. But insular England stubbornly refused to implement the new, Popish calendar, and held on to the old, inaccurate Julian Calendar for another 180 years. The English also calculated the beginning of the legal year as late March rather than January 1st, and so 1731 ran from April to March, thereby including George Washington’s birth.
At length, bowing to the demands of commercial trading interests, Parliament decided to adopt the Gregorian Calendar. Thus the month of September 1752 lost eleven days – the number required for the correction at that point.
George Washington was a 20 year old surveyor when this change took place. Being a punctilious gentleman, George was uncomfortable with celebrating his birthday 11 day early in 1753, so he himself decided that from 1753 forward he would celebrate his birthday on February 22nd. And so it is that George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, but he and we have come to celebrate February 22 as his birthday, and we now reckon his natal year as 1732.
It’s all so simple, eh? 😉
Flower Mound, Texas
Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark
of celestial fire, called conscience.