Shortly before the last New Year’s celebration, I went by Carrol Fuchs’ fireworks stand and picked up a few minor sparklies and noise-ies designed to entertain the young grandkids. Well, by the time 12 o’clock rolled around on New Year’s Eve, the kids were zonked—I still have the fireworks in my closet and propose to use them this Fourth of July.
I suppose we use fireworks to celebrate Independence Day because of “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” that “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
But it took more than rockets and bombs to keep the colors “gallantly streaming” through difficult and perilous times. It took leadership and it took the trust of many soldiers, citizens and legislators in that leadership.
When George Washington took command of the Continental Army it was in a shambles. The men would desert at will and go home to their farms at the slightest whim. Others refused to sign up and serve unless they were given a certain rank or privilege. Washington urged his men to stay on for the 1776 campaign:
“The times and the importance of the great cause we are engaged in allow no room for hesitation and delay. When life, liberty, and property are at stake; when our country is in danger of being a melancholy scene of bloodshed and desolation; when our towns are laid in ashes, and innocent women and children driven from their peaceful habitations, exposed to the rigor of an inclement season and to the hands of charity, perhaps, for support—when calamities like these are staring us in the face, and a brutal, savage enemy…are threatening us and everything we hold dear with destruction from foreign troops, it little becomes the character of a soldier to shrink from danger.”
Despite such moving entreaties, the troops continued to desert the ranks and make demands that could not and should not be met. Washington wrote, “Could I have foreseen what I have experienced, and am likely to experience, no consideration upon earth should have induced me to accept this command.”
But he knew his duty and his resolve was unyielding in spite of the personal costs. “I have met with difficulties…such as I never expected; but they must be borne with. The cause we are engaged in is so just and righteous that we must try to rise superior to every obstacle in its support.”
Even though Washington’s officers and men caused him much exasperation, they quickly developed a sincere respect for him. For example, one of his officers, Henry Knox, wrote to his wife that “General Washington fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him.”
Washington’s success might be ascribed to his carefully balanced philosophy of military leadership which he summarized in a letter to a young, inexperienced Virginia colonel who had asked for his counsel:
“The best general advice I can give…is to be strict in your discipline; that is, to require nothing unreasonable of your officers and men, but see that whatever is required be punctually complied with. Reward and punish every man according to his merit, without partiality or prejudice.
“Hear his complaints; if well founded, redress them; if otherwise, discourage them in order to prevent frivolous ones.
“Discourage vice in every shape, and impress upon the mind of every man, from the first to the lowest, the importance of the cause and what it is they are contending for…Be easy and condescending in your deportment to your officers, but not too familiar, lest you subject yourself to a want of that respect which is necessary to support a proper command.”
I believe that if George Washington’s philosophy of leadership were to be taught in our schools and our universities, the nation would be well off. Even our homes would be better off by subscribing to his views.
Surgeon James Thatcher described Washington as “truly noble and majestic, being tall and well proportioned.” Dr. Benjamin Rush was even more exuberant: “General Washington…seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom Providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin…He has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a [common servant] by his side.”
The president of the Massachusetts legislature voiced what many of the colonists felt when they met him, that he was “certainly the best man for the place he is in, important as it is, that ever lived.”
I have taken all of the above quotes from Jay A. Parry and Andrew M. Allison’s book, The Real George Washington, Chapter 11. The original sources can be found therein. To anyone interested in the founding of this great nation, I highly recommend this book.
Francis Hopkinson, one of Washington’s military aides, wrote: “To him the title of Excellency is applied with particular propriety. He is the best and greatest man the world ever knew….He retreats like a General, and attacks like a Hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he had been worshipped as a god.”
Well, there was One, for sure, greater than he, but without a doubt, as I celebrate this Independence Day, I will express my gratitude to my Maker for the life and leadership of George Washington, the Father of my country.
Let the fireworks begin…
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