Though I an unable to find the footage today, I have a very distinct memory of being in early high school right at the dawn of the disastrous George W Bush administration. He was speaking at some event in a historical library about the first President, George Washington. He ended on the note ‘George Washington…or as his friends knew him by, ‘George W.’ Heh. Heh.’
It seemed emblematic for how lame George Washington was. The guy on all the dollar bills who we were collectively shoe horned into liking via the educational system. Of course, my first (kid level) study of the Revolutionary War had convinced me that the guy was overrated as a general and a pampered failson in youth so naturally my contrarian nature made me a decidedly strong critic to show my independently thinking chops. This wasn’t wrong. Public education lies about a lot of things and this instinct largely has served me extremely well.
But its also a bit too easy and obvious to crap on an entire generation of (quite innovative) leadership because many of those people owned slaves or were involved in mass land theft. In an era which had yet to see the rise of a meaningful abolitionist movement anywhere outside congregations of Quakers, and where the economy had already turned into land expropriation as default generations before, it seems an act of pointless moralism to just write off everyone and everything by the standards of today. At least back then no one was knowingly barreling towards planet wide environmental disaster and refusing to do anything meaningful about it. Compared to the supposedly enlightened present, the 1776 generation will date extremely well despite its many faults.
After a decade of basically ignoring and avoiding American history to focus on my true Central and Eastern Asian fixations, I began to come back with my first (non-retail) job, at a library and archive dedicated to the American Revolution. Native American history had ended up becoming my capstone college topic (it remains among my very top interests to this day) and was pushing me, geographically, back to North America. It was here I realized that Washington’s war leadership was certainly still flawed at the tactical level, but was exactly the correct thing needed at the strategic level. He played a long game where using space, keeping his army intact, and dealing ruthlessly with the less than stellar subordinates would eventually increase the odds of decisive French intervention in the war, and thus ultimate victory.
As someone who almost certainly would have been a member of the Federalist Party in those early days, its hardly worth mentioning that my reconciliation with Washington’s legacy was easiest on the domestic politics front. But what made me go from hostile to fully approving of his term in office came as I studied his personal letters, diplomatic correspondence, and general foreign policy views. This is something I often come back to and reference today.
Washington, despite his lionization of today being so thoroughly connected to exceptionalists and chauvinists, was neither. The first country the U.S. had official relations with was Morocco, not France. And it was Washington (and others) who stressed in their correspondence with the king there going for years that their political experiment was meant for North America and not for export. Washington himself disavowed not only any messianic liberal project in foreign relations, but also that the new country was in any way a Christian state. It thus would not be committed to spreading any religion abroad nor would it have any trouble having full normalized relations with states of different religions (like so many European states had). It was for reasons like this, rooted as they were in geographic conceptions of sovereignty, that many historical figures of left wing disposition would come to admire him in future centuries.
These were not just statements meant to secure good relations, as they were diplomatic principles Washington would adhere to throughout his tenure in office. The ultra-pragmatic Jay Treaty being the emblematic manifestation of this world view. It was also the primary focus of his famous Farewell Address, as a small and weak nation looked with concern across an Ocean as Europe once again descended into one of its periodic bouts of warfare:
In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential, than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular Nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable, when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur. Hence frequent collisions, obstinate, envenomed, and bloody contests. The Nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the Government, contrary to the best calculations of policy. The Government sometimes participates in the national propensity, and adopts through passion what reason would reject; at other times, it makes the animosity of the nation subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives. The peace often, sometimes perhaps the liberty, of Nations has been the victim.
So likewise, a passionate attachment of one Nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite Nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest, in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite Nation of privileges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the Nation making the concessions; by unnecessarily parting with what ought to have been retained; and by exciting jealousy, ill-will, and a disposition to retaliate, in the parties from whom equal privileges are withheld. And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens, (who devote themselves to the favorite nation,) facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country, without odium, sometimes even with popularity; gilding, with the appearances of a virtuous sense of obligation, a commendable deference for public opinion, or a laudable zeal for public good, the base or foolish compliances of ambition, corruption, or infatuation.
There is a lot there that runs in direct opposition to the assumptions of so many of the people who sing Washington’s praises today and view themselves his successors. Especially for those inclined to indulge in overly ideological and sentimental conceptions of diplomacy. But also for the entire military industrial complex which insists on a maximum number of permanent alliances in order to create perpetual markets (which in turn create perpetual lobbyists in DC).
So, it is worth thinking that in this presentist time of mass-cancelling the past that sometimes even the most worn out and overly-lauded figures can still have constructive legacies to present us with.