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George Washington

( Originally Published 1916 )

From "Washington and the Generals of the Revolution"

It is a truth, illustrated in daily experience, and yet rarely noted or acted upon, that, in all that concerns the appreciation of personal character or ability, the instinctive impressions of a community are quicker in their action, more profoundly appreciant, and more reliable, than the intellectual perceptions of the ablest men in the community. Upon all those subjects that are of moral apprehension, society seems to possess an intelligence of its own, infinitely sensitive in its delicacy, and almost conclusive in the certainty of its determinations ; in-direct, and unconscious in its operation, yet unshunnable in sagacity, and as strong and confident as nature itself. The highest and finest qualities of human judgment seem to be in commission among the nation, or the race. It is by such a process, that whenever a true hero appears among mankind, the recognition of his character, by the general sense of humanity, is instant and certain : the belief of the chief priests and rulers of mind, follows later, or comes not at all. The perceptions of a public are as subtly-sighted, as its passions are blind. It sees, and feels, and knows the excellence, which it can neither understand, nor explain, nor vindicate. These involuntary opinions of people at large ex-plain themselves, and are vindicated by events, and form at last the constants of human understanding. A character of the first order of greatness, such as seems to pass out of the limits and course of ordinary life, often lies above the ken of intellectual judgment; but its merits and its infirmities never escape the sleepless perspicacity of the common sentiment, which no novelty of form can surprise, and no mixture of qualities can perplex. The mind—the logical faculty—comprehends a subject, when it can trace in it the same elements, or relations, which it is familiar with elsewhere : if it finds but a faint analogy of form or substance, its decision is embarrassed. But this other instinct seems to become subtler, and more rapid, and more absolute in conviction, at the line where reason begins to falter.

Take the case of Shakespeare. His surpassing greatness was never acknowledged by the learned until the nation had ascertained and settled it as a foregone and questionless conclusion. Even now, to the most sagacious mind of this time, the real ground and evidence of its own assurance of Shakespeare's supremacy, is the universal, deep, immovable conviction of it in the public feeling. There have been many acute essays upon his minor characteristics; but intellectual criticism has never grappled with Shakespearian art, in its entireness and grandeur, and probably it never will. We know not now wherein his greatness consists. We cannot demonstrate it. There is less indistinctness in the merit of less eminent authors. Those things which are not doubts to our consciousness, are yet mysteries to our mind. And if this is true of literary art, which is so much within the sphere of reflection, it may be expected to find more striking illustration in great practical and public moral characters.

These considerations occur naturally to the mind in contemplating the fame of Washington. An attentive examination of the whole subject, and of all that can contribute to the formation of a sound opinion, results in the belief that General Washington's mental abilities illustrate the very highest type of greatness. His mind, probably, was one of the very greatest that was ever given to mortality. Yet it is impossible to establish that position by a direct analysis of his character, or conduct, or productions. When we look at the incidents or the results of that great career—when we contemplate the qualities by which it is marked from its beginning to its end-the foresight which never was surprised, the judgment which nothing could deceive, the wisdom whose resources were incapable of exhaustion —combined with a spirit as resolute in its official duties as it was moderate in its private pretensions, as indomitable in its public temper as it was gentle in its personal tone—we are left in wonder and reverence. But when we would enter into the recesses of that mind—when we would discriminate upon its construction, and reason upon its operations—when we would tell how it was composed, and why it excelled—we are entirely at fault. The processes of Washington's understanding are entirely hidden from us. What came from it, in counsel or in action, was the life and glory of his country ; what went on within it, is shrouded in impenetrable concealment. Such elevation in degree, of wisdom, amounts almost to a change of kind, in nature, and detaches his intelligence from the sympathy of ours. We cannot see him as he was, because we are not like him. The tones of the mighty bell were heard with the certainty of Time itself, and with a force that vibrates still upon the air of life, and will vibrate forever. But the clock-work, by which they were regulated and given forth, we can neither see nor understand. In fact, his intellectual abilities did not exist in an analytical and separated form; but in a combined and concrete state. They moved altogether when they moved at all." They were in no degree speculative, but only practical. They could not act at all in the region of imagination, but only upon the field of reality. The sympathies of his intelligence dwelt exclusively in the national being and action. Its interests and energies were absorbed in them. He was nothing out of that sphere, because he was everything there. The extent to which he was identified with the country is unexampled in the relations of individual men to the community. During the whole period of his life he was the thinking part of the nation. He was its mind; it was his image and illustration. If we would classify and measure him, it must be with nations, and not with individuals.

This extraordinary nature of Washington's capacities—this impossibility of analyzing and understanding the elements and methods of his wisdom—have led some persons to doubt whether, intellectually, he was of great superiority; but the public—the community-never doubted of the transcendant eminence of Washington's abilities. From the first moment of his appearance as the chief, the recognition of him, from one end of the country to the other, as THE MAN—the leader, the counselor, the infallible in suggestion and in conduct—was immediate and universal. From that moment to the close of the scene, the national confidence in his capacity was as spontaneous, as enthusiastic, as immovable, as it was in his integrity. Particular persons, affected by the untoward course of events, sometimes questioned his sufficiency; but the nation never questioned it, nor would allow it to be questioned. Neither misfortune, nor disappointment, nor accidents, nor delay, nor the protracted gloom of years, could avail to disturb the public trust in him. It was apart from circumstances; it was beside the action of caprice ; it was beyond all visionary, and above all changeable feelings. It was founded on nothing extraneous; not upon what he had said or done, but upon what he was. They saw something in the man, which gave them assurance of a nature and destiny of the highest elevation —something inexplicable, but which inspired a complete satisfaction. We feel that this reliance was wise and right; but why it was felt, or why it was right, we are as much to seek as those who came under the direct impression of his personal presence. It is not surprising, that the world recognizing in this man a nature and a greatness which philosophy cannot explain, should revere him almost to religion,

The distance and magnitude of those objects which are too far above us to be estimated directly —such as stars—are determined by their parallax. By some process of that kind we may form an approximate notion of Washington's greatness. We may measure him against the great events in which he moved ; and against the great men, among whom, and above whom, his figure stood like a tower. It is agreed that the War of American Independence is one of the most exalted, and honorable, and difficult achievements related in history. Its force was contributed by many; but its grandeur was derived from Washington. His character and wisdom gave unity, and dignity, and effect to the irregular, and often divergent enthusiasm of others. His energy combined the parts ; his intelligence guided the whole : his perseverance, and fortitude, and resolution, were the inspiration and support of all. In looking back over that period, his presence seems to fill the whole scene ; his influence predominates throughout; his character is reflected from everything. Perhaps nothing less than his immense weight of mind could have kept the national system, at home, in that position which it held, immovably, for seven years; perhaps nothing but the august respectability which his demeanor threw around the American cause abroad, would have induced a foreign nation to enter into an equal alliance with us upon terms that contributed in a most important degree to our final success, or would have caused Great Britain to feel that no great indignity was suffered in admitting the claim to national existence of a people who had such a representative as Washington. What but the most eminent qualities of mind and feeling—discretion superhuman—readiness of invention, and dexterity of means, equal to the most desperate affairs—endurance, self-control, regulated ardor, restrained passion, caution mingled with boldness, and all the contrarieties of moral excellence—could have expanded the life of an individual into a career such as this?

If we compare him with the great men who were his contemporaries throughout the nation; in an age of extraordinary personages, Washington was unquestionably the first man of the time in ability. Review the correspondence of General Washington—that sublime monument of intelligence and integrity-scrutinize the public history and the public men of that era, and you will find that in all the wisdom that was accomplished or was attempted, Washington was before every man in his suggestions of the plan, and beyond every one in the extent to which he contributed to its adoption. In the field, all the able generals acknowledged his superiority, and looked up to him with loyalty, reliance, and reverence; the others, who doubted his ability, or conspired against his sovereignty, illustrated, in their own conduct, their incapacity to be either his judges or his rivals. In the state, Adams, Jay, Rutledge, Pinckney, Morris—these are great names ; but there is not one whose wisdom does not vail to his. His superiority was felt by all these persons, and was felt by Washington himself, as a simple matter of fact, as little a subject of question, or a cause of vanity, as the eminence of his personal stature. His appointment as commander-inchief was the result of no design on his part; and of no efforts on the part of his friends; it seemed to take place spontaneously. He moved into the position, because there was a vacuum which no other could supply : in it, he was not sustained by government, by a party, or by connections; he sustained himself; and then he sustained everything else. He sustained Congress against the army, and the army against the injustice of Congress. The brightest mind among his contemporaries was Hamilton's; a character which cannot be contemplated without frequent admiration, and constant affection. His talents took the form of genius, which Washington's did not. But active, various, and brilliant, as the faculties of Hamilton were, whether viewed in the precocity of youth, or in the all-accomplished elegance of maturer life—lightning-quick as his intelligence was to see through every subject that came before it, and vigorous as it was in constructing the argumentation by which other minds were to be led, as upon a shapely bridge, over the obscure depths across which his had flashed in a moment—fertile and sound in schemes, ready in action, splendid in display, as he was—nothing is more obvious and certain than that when Mr. Hamilton approached Washington, he came into the presence of one who surpassed him in the extent, in the comprehension, the elevation, the sagacity, the force, and the ponderousness of his mind, as much as he did in the majesty of his aspect and the grandeur of his step. The genius of Hamilton was a flower, which gratifies, surprises, and enchants; the intelligence of Washington was a stately tree, which in the rarity and true dignity of its beauty is as superior as it is in its dimensions.

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