G.W. and Me ©2014

Anachronistic reflections, in the still of the night by L.E.Taylor

Insomnia has many authors, but mine is often exacerbated by the very remedy I turn to. Lying inert with no inclination to drift off like a normal bloke, I turn for my soporific to reading. Something dry and arcane should work, like history or philosophy; or lyrical and soothing, as poetry.

A week ago, I retrieved from a shelf of fat tomes a wee little chapbook that I thought would do the trick: Rules of Civility and Behaviour in Company and Conversation. It’s a mere essay based upon a 16th century code of conduct which itself had been revised by an Englishman from an earlier screed by a French monk. Oddly, my version was written by a fifteen year old American rock star named George Washington. But, far from tumbling myself into slumber-land, that night began for me a three-night adventure back to colonial America and the earliest days of our Republic.

I’ll spare you excerpts, fascinating and comically anachronistic though they may be – simply trust that I was not lulled to sleep by these one-hundred-ten ground rules. In fact, I was shaken awake to the reality of how our society has coarsened. True, these “rules” were naïve and unattainable even in the 18th century. But today, they are more than just utopian, they are positively Martian!

Here’s the rub. In the course of every day, you and I participate in a cultural swinishness that has virtually degenerated from rudeness to sloth, to indiscriminate contempt and serial disrespect, downward to rank alienation, and now to bloody riots in the streets.

We? you ask. Yes, we. We not only observe the spectacle, we are enablers. Insidiously, we have become infected by anarchy and find ourselves daily involved in behavior undreamed-of by our morally motivated forebears. When we merely curse the barbarians, but do not take defiant action, by arms or by pen, nor in argument with fools, we join impotently in the death-dance of our civilization.

When mute tolerance of the liar and the thug becomes passive avoidance, it is naught but cowardice. (I seem to have lapsed to my inner-eighteenth century man. Egad!) To let hostile, ungodly toxins flow un-confronted in the schools, in the home, in the church, and in the streets only adds to the chaos. Jeer if you will… this demands soul-searching.

Those three nights of vicarious adventure referred to above were not spent only with Washington’s Rules of Civility. As I contrasted the gentle character of The Greatest American with squalid 21st century norms I was prompted to grab once more my well-worn copy of British historian Paul Johnson’s biography, George Washington – The Founding Father.

Dedicated to his American granddaughter, Johnson’s brilliant essay is only 123 pages long. Each time I read it, my conviction is buttressed, that our first president is our finest model of not only leadership, but also of manhood.

G.W. was educated at home in the rudiments of both classical thought and practical living. He attended no college and read no literature published after his young boyhood. But his was a pure soul of powerful scope. Like all genius, his raw talents were nothing less than bottled up energy, in this case, moral. His natural gifts, advanced largely by his own efforts, were mental, spiritual, practical, and physical.

By nineteen, young George was a master land surveyor of the trans-Appalachian wilderness, and a man with clear understanding of the potential of our continent. At six-feet-two, he was a formidable military leader, commissioned at twenty-two by his governor to confront the French diplomatically in his colony’s western lands. His expedition, punctuated by deadly force of arms, resulted in the retreat of France from the Ohio-Mississippi valley, and the sovereignty of England in what would become the United States.

Everyone knows that George Washington was his generation’s all-purpose paragon. A statesman, a general, a self-effacing patriot, and a spectacularly loving family man to his kin as well as to his soldiers, his countrymen, and even to his inherited slaves.

Harumpf.

I have no recourse, in my own humble circumstance, but to compare what I’ve accomplished, punily, in my biblically granted three-score-and-ten.

Conscience, thy name is George.

As I humbly close my copy of Paul Johnson’s book, I’m reminded of an old joke. A man is reprimanding his son for bad grades and personal sloth. Exasperated, he finally barks, “Do you know what Abraham Lincoln was doing when he was your age?”

The boy replies, deadpan, “No, father, but I know what he was doing when he was your age.”

So, gentle reader, let’s chill out. We can still dream can’t we? It ain’t over yet.

 

Onward.

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References

  1. Johnson, Paul, George Washington – The Founding Father, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2005.
  2. The Mount Vernon ladies Association, Geo. Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, Mount Vernon, VA, 1989.
  3. Taylor, L.E., Surveyor General, LET’S Blog, 20 February, 2014.

Surveyor General: The young G.Washington, Esq.

First steps toward greatness - Reflections by L.E. Taylor

The peatmoss river bank was dusted with snow, but felt spongy underfoot. The tall white man was first to leap ashore from the flatboat that had brought him to this stop on his way to Destiny. It had been twenty days since debarking from his farmland in Fairfax County, and now he was in the Ohio River Valley.

In 1750, on British maps, Virginia denoted more than the commonwealth that bears its name today. It was a blank swath of uncharted forests, swamps, mountains, and mystery that extended, unimpeded, from the Eastern Seaboard to the fabled Pacific shore. The western wilds of this other “Virginia” were known best to the Spanish, the French, and the indigenous tribes.

The eighteen year old surveyor owned a mere 10,000 acres of it – well behind him now, receding from the Allegheny Mountains back to the Tidewaters of the colony where his people lived. He’d been contracted by the King’s governor to measure the distant Interior, to map it, and to document what he saw. He was also to meet congenially with any French along the way, as well as with the Indians, to learn what he could, and then to report back.

There was a purpose: To take it all from the European powers peacefully and over time to secure it into the realm of English speaking peoples.

From childhood, George Washington had mastered surveying skills as his part of the family business. He was a farmer. At his father’s death, eleven year old George, and his elder brother Lawrence inherited several thousand acres. They managed it all out of their modest family home, Mount Vernon. When Lawrence died of tuberculosis, young George was left with full responsibility for husbanding the lands, for the planting and reaping of crops, for the livestock, the stables, the smithy, a foundry, structural expansion of the facilities, and the accounting of revenues and expenditures. There was also a brewery.

In the eighteenth century, indentured servants and laborers had become a common means of working a large plantation in the English colonies. George considered slavery to be a costly and inefficient cog of the system, but one that could not be scotched without damage all round, only phased out. In the meantime, he had the burden of providing for the slave families he had “inherited”.

Land survey was a vital aspect of the plantation. Surveying was both art and science. It was one of two components that he could not delegate to others. The other was military defense.

So it was, that even before the boy became the man, that his skills were known around his home colony. Now, at eighteen, he found himself at the Ohio River with winter coming on and serious tasks still to be done. Such unsought responsibility would hound George Washington for another half century.

As he faced the perils of the Kentucky wilderness on this damp, murky day’s end, his mind observed and he reflected. Fatherless, he’d become his own mentor. He knew patience. His surveying calculus taught him to see clues and “think in the long term.” He’d begun to comprehend the potential of this endlessly broad continent. Bit by bit, imperceptibly, the young Washington learned by observing what was before him in this hinterland, and contrasting it with the narrow culture of that settled strip along the seaboard, the fledgling world of new settlers who would be called Americans.

George Washington would come to know beyond doubt that free men would be motivated by one thing above all others: self-interest. He recognized that this land would be hospitable to individual settlements – towns, villages, river ports deep into the untamed frontier, and that the freshwater rivers and lakes could transport the goods of this fecund soil to American seaports for profitable commerce with the world.

He knew that wealth in a free land, unhampered by kings and potentates and ruling despots could be available to all. He saw it through his sextant, he knew it in his mind.

The reasons we honor George Washington each February are many and just. Because he led a ragtag army of rabble to defeat the most powerful military in the world. Because he declined lifetime sovereignty over his country. Because he simply persevered when lesser men would have folded. Because he was the very epitome of manly honor and grace.

But we must understand that it all began before a shot was fired in any of the wars of his lifetime. It began with this one man venturing into a raw continent before its time and returning, not with a dream, but with a logical vision.

Onward.

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References:

  1. Johnson, Paul; George Washington, the Founding Father; HarperCollins, Publishers: NYC, NY; 2005.
  2. Bennett, William; Our Sacred Honor; Simon & Schuster; NYC, NY; 1997.
  3. Ellis, Joseph P.:Founding Brothers – The Revolutionary Generation; Vintage Books, Random House; NYC; 2000.
  4. Taylor, L.E.; LETsBlog: http://blog.letaylortheauthor.com; Good Words Ruined – Part One; February 12, 2014.