09/24/07 - george washington

In today's excerpt - George Washington:

"By all accounts, [Washington] was the unlikeliest of revolutionaries. He was a man with more English blood in his veins than the Hanoverian German King George III; a man whose estate, Mount Vernon, was named in honor of a British admiral who had commanded his half-brother's expedition in a colonial war against Cartegena; a man so Anglophile he ordered his suits from London and wrote instructions to the tailor to select the fabric, the color, and the cut in keeping with the latest British fashions. He fervently believed in the traditional world of the British upper class. ... He was fond of using the word 'empire,' and was proud of England's. ... This was no republican or radical from Massachusetts: His instincts were aristocratic, and in time he became regal. Affecting the dignified mien of a country squire, he even dismissed the American custom, becoming increasingly commonplace throughout the eighteenth century, of shaking hands. Instead he bowed. And his soldiers called him 'Your Excellency.'

"But history has its twists and turns. When his ambitions were confronted with the careless snubs and indignities of the British upper class—among other things, he was denied a regular commission in the king's forces—it transformed him. The what-ifs of world events here are irresistible. Had Washington not been snubbed, his entire life might have been different—the prospect of glorious global service to the king, the surety of continued promotion, and the certainty of increased riches. But tradition was against him. To the Horse Guards, the headquarters of the British army in London, the amateurish colonial army officers were slightly more than nuisances, even a George Washington. And for Washington it was a gratuitous slap and a slight that would set the course for his loyalties, indeed, for much of the remainder of his life. ...

"Compared with the professionally trained generals of the British armada, Washington had relatively little combat experience, and not all of it impressive. Early on in the French and Indian War, he was forced to surrender his outnumbered regiment to the counterattacking French and their Indian allies; in many English circles, his name had actually become synonymous with American military incompetence. ...

"No matter. Washington accepted the bloodshed, destruction, and hardship of war with an alacrity that civilians, and even many generals (and in time, the British themselves), found hard to fathom. Once the battle began ... he fought to win as no one else did. ... He was prepared to survive the setbacks, the losses, the constant humiliations, and of course, the heartbreaking prospect of defeat. One cannot help but be struck by his tenacious resolve ... his unwavering determination. This, of course, paid off in the stunning victory at Yorktown."


Jay Winik


The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800


Harper Collins Publishers


Copyright 2007 by Jay Winik


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