- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 4, 2000

This year marks the bicentennial anniversary of Washington, D.C.'s birth as our nation's capital. And unlike most of the capital cities of Europe London, Paris, Madrid and so on America's capital is named in honor of an individual, namely the country's foremost Founding Father.

The city contains many memorials to George Washington, the most prominent being his 555-foot Monument on the National Mall, the "Apotheosis" mural in the dome of the U.S. Capitol, the two statues at the National Cathedral, Washington Circle, which is adjacent to the university campus that bears his name, Constitution Hall, the Society of the Cincinnati, and numerous other important but lesser-known sites as well. Of course his much-beloved Mount Vernon Estate is only a few miles away from the city and the Masonic Temple in Alexandria which celebrates his role in the formation and promotion of American Freemasonry and is accessible via Metro.

During the infancy of our nation, George Washington was without equal among the members of the Founding generation. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry and all others readily deferred to his character and leadership. He was the commander in chief of the poorly provisioned Continental Army that miraculously defeated the mighty British army and won our independence. He later presided over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and afterward was chosen to become the young republic's first president.

When it came to public service, the word "no" was not a part of Washington's vocabulary. He intuitively understood that in a democracy public duty must always supersede private desire.

The last major battle of the Revolutionary War occurred at Yorktown, Va., in 1781. However, final victory was not achieved until two years later in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris cemented the cessation of hostilities between the mother country and her former Colonies.

Indeed, it can argued that perhaps Washington's finest hour came not on the battlefields against the British but instead in how he conducted himself in March 1783 when he had to suppress a potential mutiny at his headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y., on the banks of the Hudson River.

The Continental Army was not only poorly provisioned but it was equally poorly paid. Many soldiers, officers included, had served without compensation for several years and they were justifiably outraged by the Congress' incompetence in providing proper remuneration for their arduous and valorous service.

Many members of Washington's officers corps had come to the painful conclusion that with the British defeated, they now faced a new enemy, the Congress itself. In other words, since their longstanding grievances of which Congress was fully aware had been neglected, the situation now required military intervention into the realm of civilian authority.

During this time, Congress was not only weak but it was also at "war" with the far more powerful individual states who constantly rivaled among themselves. Nonetheless, if the issues at hand were not quickly resolved to the officers' satisfaction, it is very likely America would have experienced a coup d'etat, thereby proving that self-government by the common people was an illusion and that monarchy as the British had claimed all along was the better form of government.

George Washington was caught in the middle of this volatile vortex. Both the Congress and the Army saw him, and him alone, as their "broker." The two contending constituencies really had no one else of such exalted stature to turn to. Therefore, he had to act. And so on March 15, 1783, Washington met with his conspiring officers and reminded them that they must be patient, that the Congress would eventually fulfill its fiduciary obligations to the Army, at democratic deliberative bodies, do not act dictatorially and that debate dictates decisions and action ensues afterward. The officers were angry, restless, and entirely unpersuaded by Washington's address, and he knew it.

He then remembered that he had brought along a letter from a member of Congress that he wanted to share with them but he could not read the text without the use of his eyeglasses, which only the most intimate, among his small circle of intimates, had ever seen him wear. He said, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in serving my country."

Seeing this emotionally moving manifestation of undaunted commitment and humility, many of the most hardened and determined officers openly wept and regretted their plans to take up arms against their government, which had they done so would have disgraced the nobility of their cause and affirmed for its detractors that "democracy" was nothing more than an eloquent euphemism for mob rule. And thus the conspiracy ended and the vast majority of those citizen-soldiers gradually returned to civilian life.

Later that year Washington did the same. He bid farewell to his officers, resigned his commission in Annapolis, and returned to Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. And thus the nation's enduring principle of the supremacy of civil authority over the military which is the envy of so many nations around the globe was truly born at Newburgh and ironically it happened on the "Ides of March."

Unfortunately, during the past few years Washington has been much maligned in certain segments of the black community because like Jefferson, Madison and others he was a slave owner. Despite that undeniable fact, more than 5,000 (mostly free blacks) served under his command during the Revolutionary War, during which time black poetess, Phillis Wheatley published, in 1775, an exceedingly praiseworthy poem in his tribute in which she says, "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy every action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, Washington, Be thine."

Those slaves who fought with Washington could have received their immediate freedom (and land grants) had they fought for the Crown. Some did indeed fight for the king, but most chose to take their chances with the Colonists, hoping that their patriotism would be subsequently rewarded. Thus blacks starting with the Revolutionary War have served in all of our nation's armed conflicts. After all, a true patriot is someone who loves his country even if his country doesn't like him. Love of country, like love of faith, family and friends should be unconditional. Sadly, at least in the case of blacks, their long-suffering embrace of America (until recent times) had gone mostly unrequited but nevertheless had remained steadfast.

It was during his two-term presidency that Washington arranged for Benjamin Banneker, a highly educated free black from Maryland, to assist Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant in planning the new nation's capital. Lest we forget, it was famed, Harvard-educated, black historian, Carter G. Woodson, Virginia-born and a longtime Washington resident, who said that the reason he chose, in 1926, the month of February for the celebration of "Negro History Week" (which is now African-American History Month) is because he was convinced at the three most significant Americans were born in February and he listed them in their respective order of importance: Washington, Douglass and Lincoln.

Lastly, during this yearlong capital community birthday celebration, it behooves the residents of Washington, D.C. and the nation as a whole to learn more about the "indispensable man" that the capital city so handsomely honors.



Edward C. Smith is the director of American studies at The American University.

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