Friday, February 22, 2008

"Bad seed is a robbery of the worst kind: for your pocket-book not only suffers by it, but your preparations are lost and a season passes away unimproved." -George Washington

I planted some bad seed in my garden about a month ago. I shouldn't have, I know, because Washington is right. It is backbreaking labor to till the soil, turn and amend it, and then to pray fervently for rain and lastly -here is the worst part- wait. You wait. It is a full pleasure to finally see the tiny shoots peering from the ground. You have done some, God himself has done the rest, but with bad seed, all is wasted and you wait forever.

Washington knew this as a farmer, and he would know that after that first month of waiting for the germination, things really start to move. After the initial shoot, there is the first set of two leaves, and then four, and then one day you will turn your back and the plant will burst forth with life. It is the same with the fruit: first one, then two, then ten, then a hundred, and the work turns suddenly to preserving the goods, as you have more than you can eat.

Washington: "Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth."

He believed wholeheartedly in the young constitution and dedicated his life to preserving it. And so much did he envision the success of the young country, that he was once quoted as boldly saying: "Some day, following the example of the United States of America, there will be a United States of Europe."

When I think about George Washington, the first thing that comes into my head is a question my dad asked me when I was in about the 5th grade: "Do you know what George Washington did for a living?" I did know. He was a surveyor. I remember my dad being particularly impressed that I knew this, but it was just by chance that it had been mentioned in class that day. George Washington came alive for me when I had heard it. My father was a surveyor, too.

It takes a certain kind of person to be one, actually. You have to have a love for the outdoors, an exacting mind with respect for numbers, a keen sense of direction, and also: good penmanship. I remember my dad in his boots, with his theodolite on his shoulder, making his way across a field, noting every tree and boulder. And then my dad in his office, with his maps and his calculators, his rulers and his insufferable attention to detail. My dad would show me the maps of various subdivisions and they looked like nonsense to me, just plain bad Spirograph, but he explained it as legal mathematics. I picture Washington somewhat similarly.

Washington gained a reputation as a surveyor who was fair, honest, and dependable. This was no small feat. Imagine mapping out rough country with no roads, no vehicles, with wealthy landowners breathing down your neck, not to mention Indians. It would be easy to cut corners on say, some hillside thicket. Evidently he didn't. To be a surveyor was akin to being a judge in those times, when property was everything, and the lines that divided them akin to lines on a check register. Landowners relied on them. Unreliable ones would be run out of town.

Washington became a wealthy landowner himself, eventually, and had many slaves as was the manner of the day. This kept Liberty on his mind, I figure. At the time of his death there were over 300 slaves at Mount Vernon. Slavery was a touchy subject and so he never brought it up publicly, but in his personal letters he wrote: "I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery." He wished to sell them all, but was legally bound to keep them as many came from the dowry of his wife. These intermingled with his own through the years, and as a result there were many slave families that Washington refused to break up. Washington would be the only prominent Founding Father to free his own slaves, which he had demanded in his will to be done upon his death.

And he was a warrior.

His knowledge of the land from his surveying was of great benefit to battle strategy, as was the discipline gained from his profession. "Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all," he wrote. He fought in two wars, and was witness to the blood of the thousands of men that poured on the soil that would become America. Considering that, at the time, it was little more than a dream that they were fighting for, he must have been a man of immense faith.

There is argument and debate as to whether Washington was a Christian, but I suspect this is a fact that resides only between the man and God himself, as it does for all of us. He was baptized into the Church of England and even served on the lay council of the local church at one point in his life. There is no doubt religion was an important part of the man, as he claimed:

"It is impossible to rightly govern a nation without God and the Bible."


"Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

But one thing is curious. He was known to have regularly received the sacrament before the revolution, but in his church attendance after the war it was noted by some that he would leave the service before Communion was offered. It was common in the day that, prior to communion, believers would be admonished to take stock of their spiritual lives and asked not to participate in the ceremony unless they found themselves in the Will of God. I imagine many Christians can identify with the moment in church when the sacrament comes around and you just feel unworthy. I've been there, and I suppose that for Washington, after years of nothing less than brutal bloodshed, the forgiveness of the Lord would be a challenge. Later in life, Washington would cease attending church on Communion Sundays altogether.

It follows that he believed man to be a flawed creature, an utterly biblical notion.

"Mankind, when left to themselves, are unfit for their own government."

He was not one to pass judgement on religion. When hiring workmen for Mount Vernon, he wrote to his agent, "If they be good workmen, they may be from Asia, Africa, or Europe; they may be Mohammedans, Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists." And in 1790, he wrote a response to a letter from a synagogue that he was more concerned about them being good citizens than what manner of faith they had. The Jewish community had finally found a place in the world where they were both welcomed and free from intense prejudice. The Jewish nation has been an ally in democracy ever since.

There are all manner of stories and exploits, quotes and myths, regarding this man who happened to never sign the Declaration of Independence, but was the only president ever elected unanimously by the electoral college. Only one state is named after any American: Washington, and there is, of course, the nation's capital. He was called the "Father of Our Country" more than twenty years before his death. He is considered by many scholars to be our best president, and to have our best president as our first president, is Providence indeed.

After American independence was bravely fought and won, King George III asked an American, “What will George Washington do now?” He was told: “I expect he will go back to his farm.” The King replied: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man on earth.”

To the astonishment of all, this is what Washington did.

It's not too difficult to imagine, really. I had the good fortune to visit Mt. Vernon, and I can attest that it is a beautiful and serene place. Upon his death, Washington refused to lie in state beneath the cold capitol dome, where a crypt was built for him. Had he done this, the capitol of our nation would have become a mausoleum, and Washington something akin to a pharaoh -a dead god-king worshipped in his immortal pyramid. Instead, the man wished to be buried at home on his farm. Identifying himself in his will, he wrote merely: "George Washington, of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States." The United States; a place that didn't exist for most of his life, but exists today thanks to him. And to see the capitol dome today, one thinks not of any king nor conqueror, of president nor political party, but of the greatness of the United States of America itself.

Though he was revered and though he was noble, though he was bigger than life -tall, strong, with a full head of hair (contrary to myth he never wore a wig) he was able to stand down after the presidency with his dignity utterly intact, setting a precedent of extraordinary character. Even Napoleon recognized it on his deathbed when he moaned, "They wanted me to be another Washington," but powerful conqueror that he was, ambition was his foil. This was Washington's greatest achievement: to shed his ambition entirely.

Congressman Henry Lee, in his famous eulogy of the president, wrote:

"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting… Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues… Such was the man for whom our nation mourns."

February 22, 1732: George Washington's birthday.

Many hard-working men tilled the New World.
George Washington was the good seed.
God did the rest.

Status of flag: Out.