George Washington - Ada Russell

This middle school biography of Washington tells the story of his youth, young adulthood, and career as commander of the Revolutionary forces. The final chapter summarizes his accomplishments as first President of the United States, and the appendix includes a selection of Journals, letters, and addresses given by the foremost of the founding fathers that make for fascinating reading and give first hand insight into his character.

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Our story, which is a little that of the United States as well as a short history of the life of George Washington, begins in the fifteenth century with the great ancestor, Columbus, and with the great fifteenth century movement which Columbus represented—the Renaissance.

'Renaissance,' as I suppose all of my readers will know, means literally, 'Re-birth,' and the rebirth which took place in Europe in the fifteenth century was the rebirth of civilisation after the centuries known to History as the 'Dark Ages' and the 'Middle Ages.' Our modern nations were all formed by tribes of barbarians who overran and destroyed the Roman Empire, although to all who came into contact with her, Rome gave traditions of arts and laws that they never wholly lost in their darkest days. Our barbarous ancestors absorbed all they could understand of her institutions and built up systems of law and government and religion, invented styles of architecture and painting that became truly decorative, and developed popular literatures that we still treasure.

What was chiefly lacking in this medieval civilisation, for it became a distinct and mature civilisation, was breadth and freedom, the grace and repose of the classical world, the liberty and freshness of a wide outlook. The stained-glass windows of the Gothic cathedral are the best type of the medieval mind—it shut out with figures of great beauty the free spaces of the universe. It sought to enclose the mind in narrow bounds, and it stifled original thought and discovery.

Another thing that came to an end with Rome was the idea of Democracy. The States of antiquity evolved an ideal of self-government that returned to the world with the Renaissance, although it did not begin to bear its full fruit until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Greece (from whom Rome had taken up the torch of civilisation) had created in Athens the perfect Democratic State, and her thinkers, Aristotle and Plato, wove political theories that all scientific revolutionaries have pondered over ever since the Renaissance. She set up for imitation the perfect Republic. Rome never in real fact possessed a perfect Republic, but after Caesar overthrew her democratic institutions by crossing the Rubicon, she always looked back to them with a wistful reverence, and the heroic struggle of her aristocrats against Caesar helped to create in the minds of men and bequeath to History a noble, ideal Rome, mother of freemen. This ideal Rome men were to find again at the Renaissance and it was to have an incalculable influence on all later political movements.

Politics, history, art, literature, geography, commerce, discovery, were all changed in scope and outlook by this movement, which ended the Middle Ages and started the modern world.

The means by which the great changes were worked were partly the capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 and the consequent flight of Greek scholars from that famous old Greek city to havens of refuge in the West of Europe. Italy benefited first, and she was at that moment ripe for the new thought and knowledge, as already her literary men, her Dante and Boccaccio, had soaked themselves in all that was left of the Latin classics; and she received the Greek scholars in one of those waves of literary enthusiasm that leave a permanent mark on the thought of a nation. From Italy this enthusiasm spread all over the world.

For us the chief points of interest in this movement are the attention that was now paid to Greek geographers, which led to the discovery of America; and the revival of interest in republican institutions which led to the foundation of the United States.

When the movement of the Renaissance first began to spread over Europe, the various nations of that continent were beginning to range themselves under strong monarchies, and the tendency was for those monarchies to become despotisms. These despotisms were a need of the times, as the alternative was anarchy and the thousand petty despotisms of the nobles. Thus we have the Tudor despotism in England and the Bourbon despotism in France, but already the nobles were reading Plutarch's lives of the famous Greeks and Romans and forming secret ideals of a State governed by aristocrats, like Rome in Cicero's time. The first-fruits of this were the 'Fronde' in France and the rebellion against the Stuarts in Great Britain, which resulted before the end of the seventeenth century in the establishment of a Whig aristocratical Government not unlike that of the great Roman republic. In France in the seventeenth century Louis XIV and Mazarin put an end to the Fronde and Louis could make with truth the famous assertion: 'The State? I am the State!' but before his death Plutarch's Lives had come out again, and the Memoirs of the heroes of the Fronde were to be found on great ladies' dressing-tables. Republican ideals were in the air at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and they were republican ideals drawn straight from classical antiquity. Political theories were to go on fermenting in France until the outbreak of the French Revolution at the close of the century, but, before the great French upheaval came, French and British ideas floating across the Atlantic were to give birth to that new nation, the United States.

So we come to the eighteenth century, and with the eighteenth century we are in the midst of the flowering of all the republican ideas introduced by the Renaissance. At its beginning Louis XIV was still on the throne of France, but before it closes the Bastille will have fallen and the Americans in the name of the 'Rights of Man' will have signed the Declaration of Independence.

The individualism introduced by the Renaissance influenced the sixteenth century, but in religion, not in politics. It produced the Reformation, and this had a very important effect on the politics of the future by setting a man's conscience above both Church and State. This was seen to the full in the seventeenth century, but that century produced only one eminent man who formed a really popular view of government, Hobbes, the author of the Leviathan, a book setting forth the theory that all government was derived from an original contract between sovereign and people for the benefit of the latter. The Leviathan appeared during the Commonwealth, and in the height of royalist reaction under the Stuart restoration it was considered a very wicked book, not fit for the good citizen to read. Hobbes' theory, however, was revived in the eighteenth century by Rousseau, the father of the French Revolution, in his Control Social, and was the basis of the American Declaration of Independence.

Of all periods of history which can help us in our present political needs, the eighteenth century is the most useful, as the ideas and ideals which are to the fore in the life of the nations of the world to-day first sprang up then, in what we may call 'political quantities,' in our modern life. For the first time in modern history we get a full statement by two nations—America and France—of the idea of social and political equality, and men first began to criticise the 'Powers that Be' in a dangerous way. It was the beginning of the Age of the 'Rights of Man,' and we are not yet out of that age. Literary and intellectual people in France, Spain, Italy, England, Sweden, even Prussia and Russia, were not only busy creating Utopias, but were possessed with the longing to change the whole face of political life. Voltaire raised the first voice against the wars of political aggression that have always been the main fact of history, and his profound irony and polished epigrams were read with delight the whole world over by educated people. No amount of direct hard hitting could so have discredited the governments of his time when war was played by States like chess, for the amusement, satisfaction, and gain of noble families, and the common people were only looked on in the light of soldiers or servants, or 'pawns.'

A new idea that came to the fore in the eighteenth century was that there were no common people. This idea, once it was born, acted like dynamite on social institutions. Voltaire wrote only for the literary classes, but Rousseau made the new idea a religion that appealed also to statesmen and ordinary people, and Beaumarchais placed plays and operas on the stage—like the Marriage of Figaro—telling the world at large that there is no more evil thing under the sun than 'a great noble who is a wicked man.' The sole virtue of the typical nobleman was that he had given himself the trouble to be born—'Vous vous etes donne la peine de naitre, et rien de plus.'

Most of you will have seen Beaumarchais' Marriage of Figaro as an opera, and you may have been told what Napoleon said of it—that it was the French Revolution in action. The author himself relates the outcry against it; it offended, his enemies said, 'Religion, government, all ranks of society, and morality; virtue was oppressed and vice reigned triumphant.' You will probably have been surprised that a piece which seems to you so harmless should have created such an uproar, but it is one of the most important literary productions of the age, as it expressed so clearly the new dangerous doctrines. The theatre was guarded on the day of the representation; society ladies, always the first in France under the 'Old Regime' to take up with new ideas, went early in the morning and sat patiently in their seats until the performance began; and at night people dispersed the guards, forced the doors, and broke down the wickets to get in. Its great doctrine, very skilfully clothed and disguised, is that noble birth does not make a man any better than his neighbours; and it further claims a certain private liberty of judgment for the common people. Beaumarchais had to explain away carefully a saying of Figaro about war: 'Are we soldiers that we should kill and be killed for interests we are ignorant of?'

The Declaration of Independence, which is the political creed of American democracy, contains the practical British war-cry of, 'No taxation without representation,' and it also contains the intoxication of the new gospel of eighteenth century France: 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity!' Most people to-day think that equality is neither possible nor desirable; but Fraternity we hope that we shall have always with us, and no man can live without Liberty. Acting on these ideals, partly French and partly British, America carried out the first and most successful of attempts to 'make the world safe for democracy.'

"No calmative of sleep or sage

Can cure the fever to be free!"

John Masefielo

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The bibliography of Washington is immense, but comprehensive lists are to be found in: BAKER,—Bibliotheca Washingtoniana (1889).

Mention may here be made of:

  • WASHINGTON IRVING,—George Washington (Geoffrey Crayon edition of the Works, 1881), which is still a standard life in the United States.
  • H. C. LODGE,—George Washington (1889 and 1898).
  • B. T. THAYER,—George Washington (1894).
  • WOODROW WILSONGeorge Washington (1896). American Historical Review.

Among modern histories of the United States referred to may be mentioned: Those of PRESIDENT WILSON and CECIL CHESTERTON.

Among the most interesting books relating to other Fathers of the Revolution who appear in this history are:

  • FRANKLIN,—Autobiography, (J. M. Dent & Co., 1905, containing excellent Introduction, etc.
  • WIRT,—Patrick Henry, (1817).

The best edition of Washington's writings is that of W. C. FORD (1889–1893).