Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A little history on the 4th.

Was thinkin' the other night, realizing the day of days was almost upon us again, and decided it had been a while since I pontificated on this page at length.

Was thinking about the date, and maybe that a few of you don't know the first time that date became important to the Father of our Country. Ever think why, even in his life time, he was called the Father of the Country? It wasn't because he slept around. Turns out he was a hell of a guy, but he wasn't much of a battlefield general. Only won about three battles in his whole lifetime, but you really don't learn much from winning, do you? Some people don't even learn much from defeat, but Washington not only learned lessons from defeat, he earned the undying respect from his soldiers and his nation, and even his enemies.

I love tellin' this story to my students. I've even, on a late night after a long tiring day, found myself fighting back tears, standing there sniffling like a fool, telling them how much we owe this man. For those who pay attention, the history of this country is a rich palate, and there is so much passion in it, I can't tell ya. It chokes me up all the time.

Lots of people have heard that he had wooden teeth. They tell it like it's a joke, and don't stop to think why. Of course, they weren't wooden. Whale bone I think. Painful to wear. Thing is, his teeth rotted out of his head because of a period in his youth when he suffered from malnutrition. The man who would become the richest planter in Virginia actually starved for a period in his childhood, like a lot of farmer/settlers did, when the vagaries of weather moved against them. He didn't become the great, rich planter until he married Martha, who was an older widow. He raised her children from her previous marriage, but they never had children of their own. So he ended up latching on to some of his staff, like Hamilton, Lafayette, and Knox, and seeing them as his surrogate sons.

First time Washington's name came up in the history books is around 1752. The French had moved troops into Western Pennsylvania, up state New York, and the Ohio country, trying to run the British and Colonial American settlers and fur traders off, trying to establish firmer control over the territory. This set of events will eventually turn into something called the French and Indian War, one of the most important events in our history. Without it, there might not have been a revolution.

The French had never been able to get a lot of settlers to go to New France (Canada), and the English colonies were steadily encroaching on the lands they claimed, and Indian tribes they traded firs with. The English used their colonies as a dumping ground for all the religious groups or petty criminals/poor folks that they didn't want to live with in Britain. As a result, the population of the colonies was doubling about every 26 years. For the French, seeing this demographic wave cresting over them, control of the continent was at stake. The French moved south in force, and drove all the settlers and traders out of the territory. A few of those fir traders were from Virginia. The Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, named Dinwiddle, sent a young, 21 yr. old planter and surveyor, member of the Virginia legislature, George Washington, on a diplomatic mission to tell the French they were trespassing on Virginia's territory.

Back in those days, none of the colonies had western borders, and Virginia claimed everything west of her, and north and south of her. The place in question here, where these Virginians had been run out of, was a fort at the confluence of the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, where those rivers join to form the Ohio. Today, that place is called Pittsburgh.

Washington was led up there by a Seneca Indian named Half King, and was told by the French that this place was theirs, and that he should return to Virginia. He did, was promoted to be a Lt. Colonel in the Virginia militia, and sent back with troops to try to take the place. He got up there with his militiamen, and Half King's Seneca warriors, and found that the French had strengthened the fort. He didn't think he could take it, so he decided to build a new one nearby.

Long story short; Washington's choice of where to put the fort was a disaster, and when the French came down on him, he was forced to surrender to keep his men alive. His inexperience cost his men their lives, and he never forgot it. The day he surrendered... July 4th, 1754.

The French sent he and his men back to Virginia after he signed a surrender document, written in French, which Washington didn't speak or read. The whole incident sparked a wider war in Europe, and made Washington's name famous both here and in Britain. Washington went back to Virginia, was promoted again (WHAT?), and goes back up into the disputed wilderness in 1755 at the head of a larger force, led by a British general and a few hundred British regulars. They got up into what is now western Pennsylvania and were jumped by hundreds of Indians who were allied to the French. In the ensuing disaster, the British general and many officers are killed, and Washington was forced to take over.

In the process of getting most of his men out of this mess alive, he had 3 horses shot out from under him, and 4 musket balls shot through his coat without hitting him. In this instance, and over and over again in the Revolution, Washington displayed amazing personal courage in the face of the enemy, inspiring his men and his nation to love him. What's more important, he didn't waste their lives in fruitless adventurism or self aggrandizement. After this disaster, called the Battle of the Wilderness, having become a huge hero in the colonies, Washington put in for a regular commission in the British army. They turned him down, and he took off his militia uniform, not to put it on again till his country called in 1775.

During the Revolution, Washington's role was almost more political than tactical. He was like a combination of both Generals Marshall, Eisenhower, and Bradley in World War Two; keeping the cause going in the face of an overwhelming British superiority, and the ineptitude of the congress that was supposedly running things, running the tactical and diplomatic side of the war, and keeping the force together and trained, so that American soldiers, by the end of the war, were a match for any in the world.

In the process, Washington was seen more and more by everyone as our surrogate executive. The institution that the people followed was increasingly the Continental Army, and not the disappointing Continental Congress. People were heard to say, "The Brits have their George (King George III), so why shouldn't we have our George?" Americans, after all were really British people, with a British political culture, so it was perfectly natural for them to crave the order that the monarchy symbolized. It's often the case, when a people try to make the transition to messy and frustrating democratic government, that they choose to back slide and allow some general or set of colonels to take over and restore order. The British did it, after their Civil War in the 1640s. We came very close, and it's probably Washington's greatest moment.

The war began to draw to a close in October of 1781, after the American/French victory at Yorktown. Our diplomats began negotiating terms with the British in Paris, but the treaty wasn't finished till November of 1782. Washington had to keep the Continental Army together for about a year, while the diplomats argued. The men were camped in Newburgh, New York, and they weren't being paid or supplied. The state governments were no longer interested in shelling out the money, since the war was over. The 13 colonies were now 13 sovereign nations, joined together in a loose union, and no one could make them pay up. The officers could resign their commissions and go home, but out of solidarity with their men, many of them stayed, and the complaining eventually turned into plotting. They decided that Washington had to be made king, or all they had fought for would be wasted. Order had to be established. One problem though; Washington didn't want to be king.

The news got out of the plotting, that we call the Newburgh Conspiracy today, and congress went into a panic. Washington found out about it, and what do you think he did? Did he send loyal troops to arrest and hang the plotters for treason? Nope. He found out when and where they were going to meet next, and he showed up there and talked them out of it. He stood up in front of them as the representative of the congress that he detested, and convinced them all to give that congress another chance to work things out. In doing this, he preserved the notion of civilian control over the military, and the notion that we in America don't solve our political disputes with military coups and gunfire. When the time came, he had a huge party to say goodbye to his men. They all cried and embraced, and then he took off his uniform and went back to his private life.

Many of these early leaders were all educated in classical terms, and one story that they'd all heard was the story of the old, retired Roman general Cincinnatus. About 2300 years ago, Cincinnatus was living on his villa, growing grapes, when an army of Celts crossed the alps and began ransacking Italy. The Senate sent several armies to deal with the issue, but they were all defeated. Finally, in desperation, the senate offered Cincinnatus absolute power, a Kings power, if he would lead the army.

At that time, this kind of power was given out only in dire emergencies, and it was expected to be given back to the Senate when the emergency ended. Cincinnatus defeated the Celts, driving them back over the Alps, and then, with all the popularity of a victorious general, and the people behind him, he handed the power back to the Senate and went back to his villa. Ever since then, the image of Cincinnatus has been used to illustrate the notion of Statesmanship, and Nobles Oblige.

Washington, coming from common background, spent his whole life reading books and studying how to be a real gentleman. When the time came, and we needed a Cincinnatus, he was our man. He wasn't perfect, but no one is. The point is, he could have been a Napoleon or a Caesar, deciding to take power to save the day. In stead, he chose to be a Cincinnatus. We owe him everything for that. Later, when serious deficiencies arose with the system we had originally adopted, he was instrumental in getting the Constitutional Convention going in 1787, and acted as the presiding officer at Philadelphia. Then, being the only man everyone trusted with the job, he served two terms as our first president. He's the only president to receive unanimous votes in the electoral college, twice. He died of pneumonia, maybe bled to death by his doctors, after riding around his land in the dead of winter, checking his property. He died as he lived, doing his duty, and trying to be a good shepherd. Next time you take out a dollar bill, look at the picture, and say thanks.

When you watch the fireworks tonight, as I will, remember why they're there. Remember the War of 1812, and the roughly 1000 men and women at Ft. McHenry, outside Baltimore, and what they went through. On September 13th and 14th, 1814, they withstood a day and a half of bombardment by the biggest guns the British had. An American lawyer who was on a ship tied up with the British fleet, trying to win the release of another prisoner, saw the flag flying defiantly as the sun came up on the 14th, and was inspired. Frances Scott Key supposedly took and envelope out of his pocket and jotted down this poem;

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines on the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! O long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wiped out their foul footstep's pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Never heard the whole thing, have ya? I can't read it without ballin'. Of course, the first stanza was soon put to the tune of a popular drinking song, printed up and distributed around, and eventually became our national anthem. Isn't it cool as hell that our anthem was a drinking song? What would the tight-assed bastards these days do with that if they could? I can't stop thinking that our forefathers must be spinning in their graves, seeing what we've allowed to be done with the freedom they left to us.

I can't stop thinking about all the people who've died fighting to build and protect this country, and that we owe them everything we have. More importantly, we owe it to the future generations who'll inherit the country from us. Hell, we owe it to the people we stole the place from, not to let the purveyors of propriety and safety ruin it any more than they already have. It's a huge responsibility. Think about it tonight, when you're having a good time. Knock one back for the folks who are watching us from somewhere else. Light one up for the folks who didn't make it, and can't be here with us today.

I told this to my class Tuesday afternoon, just before letting them go for the holiday. One guy, a soldier who has served in Iraq, smiled and said he would be having a few extra beers Wednesday for his buds who didn't make it back. I know a few vets from an older war that feel the same way. I can't say it any better than they could. I'll tip a few for them tonight, watching the fireworks display on the base, wishing we could watch it together, slap each other on the back, hug each other and laugh about it all. Maybe some day.

So, when you're watching the fireworks tonight, think of those folks, all those hundreds of years ago, and right up to today. Think of all it took to build what we have, and don't forget it. Don't let it be pissed away. The future is in our hands, and nothing is written. People and nations create their own destiny, so think about that, and what you can do in your own life to ensure that our nations future is as rich as it's past. Cheers.


H2o said...

Love this post. History has always been my favorite subject. I hope you and your family have a great 4th of July!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I'm afraid there are too many people who look at today as just another day off for beer and burgers. Real shame, that. said...

Damn, almost cried and then I got anxious because it was running into beer time!

Washington was a brave man...went through a lot just to get the land west of the mountains opened up for farming! A man has to do what a man has to do!

Love ya man...have a great day!

*Goddess* said...

Damn. You actually make history interesting. Great post.

BTW, French & Indian War was one of the most important events in history...where have I heard that before? LOL.

John Enright said...

Wow. Great post. I read a biography of Washington a few years ago, but you tell the story better!

alphonsedamoose said...


Lin said...

Thank you, that was as beautifully written as it was informative and inspiring - who could ask for more.

Christina RN LMT said...

Thanks, FHB.

Dick said...

Nice job, thanks.

Joe said...

I enjoyed the hell out of that post

none said...

Terriffic post! This fills in all the gaps from my hapazard education.

FHB said...

Thanks eveybody. You guys are great. I hope you all had a great 4th.

Shrink Wrapped Scream said...

Okay, I forgive Washington for beating my ancestors ass (I think), but at least you've reinforced my mistrust of the French.. Jeez, that was one informative and moving post, my friend - and that's rich seeing as how I'm a sodding Brit!!

ps. Still can't post vids (can't figure out how to copy the complete html code..)

Kevin said...

Great post! Learned a lot of new (to me) stuff there. The history and the people behind it are just another reason to love this great country.