A few weeks ago, I came across a great book in the nonfiction section of the library entitled Blood of Tyrants. I confess I was attracted by the lurid title which seemed to have a tenuous relationship to the biography of George Washington during the Revolutionary War that the book turned out to be. Despite the misleading title, I really enjoyed the book.
I have read a fair amount about George Washington, but this book provided some great reminders of the challenges he faced, his remarkable character and the many parallels between Revolutionary America and our country today. Washington, like many other leaders of the time and today, wrote extensively about the dangers of debt while at the same time incurring very large debts to achieve the revolution’s goals. James Madison famously wrote during the period that, “Public debt is a public curse.” Alexander Hamilton reported that the federal war debt exceeded $54 million in 1780, and Washington narrowly avoided a revolt by his own troops at the end of the war because they were not being paid for their service. Apparently, we have always been good at talking about the perils of debt while being less effective at actually avoiding them.
Pundits today make large sums of money by pointing to the evils of divisive politics, but they would have had much better material during the Revolutionary War. Americans were tarring and feathering, torturing, confiscating property, and periodically killing one another over political disagreements; and Washington was in the middle of many of these issues. He actually made the case for torture and mistreating British prisoners as a means of protecting his own troops who were suffering similar treatment from the enemy. Washington was more protective of property rights, arguing against unlawful confiscation of Loyalists’ holdings, but more than willing to hang anyone with or without due process who he believed was guilty of spying.
The world is obviously a much different place than it was during Revolutionary times, but we continue to wrestle with many of the same problems and moral dilemmas. It is a tribute to Washington and other leaders of the time that we continue to look to their example as a guide to our current conduct. Washington was an extraordinary leader whose greatest accomplishment may have been what he chose not to do. His popularity at the conclusion of the War and through his presidency was so high that he easily could have accumulated more power and stayed in office through the remainder of his life. Washington chose instead to retire to Mt. Vernon and pass governance on through a democratic, peaceful process. We have followed that example for more than 200 years, and I believe it is among the most important, if not the most important, legacy of George Washington and the founders of our nation.
If you haven’t done so lately, I would strongly encourage everyone to visit the library. I think Washington would agree.