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Hillsdale’s Matthew Spalding on George Washington

Matthew Spalding -- Hillsdale

Matthew Spalding is Vice President for Washington Operations and Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government at Hillsdale College. Those reading these words who know little of Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan have some homework to do.

Hillsdale has a post in Somers Connecticut, The Hillsdale College Blake Center for Faith and Freedom. Spalding’s address on February 22, 2004, “Pater Patriae: George Washington as America’s Founder,” was delivered before a standing room only, appreciative crowd at the Blake Center, and Spalding did not disappoint.

The Blake Center itself, an architectural wonder, a brick by brick accurate replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Home in Monticello, was, in many ways, a perfectly appropriate site for Spalding’s remarks. Spalding’s address sought to answer, among other questions: Does character in politics matter?

It does and did, prior to, during and after the American Revolution.

The larger question that confronts us in our post-Marxian period is: Should history as such survive?

History is more than – but it may never be less than -- the application of character on the times in such a way that the times, always amorphous and confusing, does not obscure a saving message to future generations. To put the question in post-Marxian terms: Does history matter at all? Why can’t we just reinvent the past in such a way that an imaginative reinvention may confirm Marx’s perception, often expressed by him and his ideological proponents, that philosophers in the past have merely interpreted history, but it is the ambition of Marxian revolutionary philosophy to change history?

The impress of the character of George Washington on the history of the American Revolution stands before this Marxian effrontery with hand outstretched, yelling STOP!

Spalding’s address, full of delicious tidbits – Spalding has been studying and writing about Washington for about forty years – focused on Washington’s prudence, his attention to detail, his finely honed sense of honor, his relationship to power and the creation, pretty much out of whole cloth, of the fundamental principles that later would be enshrined in both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

After Washington had been selected general of the revolutionary armed forces, before the signing of both documents, Congress twice invested Washington with absolute power to do whatever was militarily necessary. Both times, after military aims had been partly secured, Washington returned that investment of power to Congress where, prudence told him, it belonged.

Moderns think of prudence as a check on action. Washington, steeped in Cato, his favorite Roman rhetorician and philosopher, knew that prudence walked hand in hand with virtuous action. Prudence was only a bar to imprudent action, but it did not render its practitioners immobile in the face of right action.

Following Washington’s victory over the British at Yorktown, a group of patriots arose, Alexander Hamilton among them, who thought that Washington or Brigadier General Andrew Lewis should assume political power in the country, still in its infancy.

Hamilton, Spalding told the audience members, all quiet as church mice during his presentation, had volunteered to invite Washington to an event attended by Washington’s troops. Hamilton and others wanted to persuade Washington to take control of the nascent government in order to exert pressure on Congress.

Washington told Hamilton in a brief note, “An army is a dangerous instrument to play with,” and he declined the invitation.

However, Washington did choose to attend the meeting and address the troops in what later came to be called the Newberg Address. The troops attentive to him, all hardened in battle and fiercely committed to liberty and independence, hung on their general’s every word. The tested loyalty of the troops to Washington was as solid as Washington’s sense of virtue and honor.

Personally, Washington was a domineering presence. He was tall, six foot two inches, and was said to have been the best horseman in Virginia.

Washington had prepared a nine page statement to read to his troops. The man was never unprepared.

Before addressing his troops, Washington pulled out of his pocket eye glasses to read the carefully prepared document. His troops had never seen him wear glasses and were deeply affected by the gesture and his words. His eyes, he told the assembled troops, had grown weary in the service of his country.

A self-taught student of the collapse of the Roman Republic, Washington was present to prevent an army from seizing control of political power, always in history the death knell of vibrant republics.

“Washington knew,” Spalding told his audience, “exactly what he was doing.” Throughout the war, Washington’s spy service was much better and more fiercely and prudently dedicated to republican government than, say, the various spy services of the 21st century.

“By an anonymous summons,” Washington said, “an attempt has been made to convene you together—how inconsistent with the rules of propriety! how unmilitary! and how subversive of all order and discipline—let the good sense of the Army decide… As I have never left your side one moment, but when called from you, on public duty—As I have been the constant companion & witness of your Distresses, and not among the last to feel, & acknowledge your Merits—As I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the Army—As my Heart has ever expanded with joy, when I have heard its praises—and my indignation has arisen, when the Mouth of detraction has been opened against it—it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the War, that I am indifferent to its interests.”

The Newburgh Address touched on themes central to Washington throughout his career: public duty, honor, civilian control of the military and civic republican virtue.

His conclusion of his address to his troops was masterful and gives us a glimpse into Washington’s character: “And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country--as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, & as you regard the Military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious presences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, & deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”

The reference to “sacred honor,” Spalding asserted, pointed to the final words of the Declaration of Independence: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

In answer to a question following his luminous address – To what extend was Washington moved by religious presuppositions? – Spalding noted that Deism had been much overdone by some post-Enlightenment historians. Washington was, in fact, a vestryman at both Fairfax Parish and Truro Parish. And he, like Lincoln, had -- God bless them both -- escaped Harvard. This slight on Harvard produced a wave of chuckles from the audience. Spalding described Washington as “a great-souled man.”

Another questioner asked whether Spalding thought the United States might make good use of another Washington, given the present confusing condition of modern politics?

He answered, yes and no. The nation could always use men and women willing to pledge their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to uphold the republic left to us by sacrifices earlier made. Character that rises above pedestrian concerns will always be important. But we must not suppose that out forbearers left to us a nation that had not developed over time to fulfill the novel experiment in American liberty.

“There are plenty of good legislators in Washington, and in the states as well,” Spalding confidently affirmed.

Then too, despair is the sin foretold in scripture that will not be forgiven, for it is a denial of a continuing work of salvation by the author of all good things.


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