George Washington, the hero of the New World

How a general in spite of himself is brought to the pinnacle of glory. How a President of the United States becomes an ordinary politician. Before becoming legendary: one state, seven mountains, eight rivers, ten lakes, nine universities, one hundred and twenty-one cities…

We hardly read Pastor Mason Weems anymore. That’s a shame. His Vie de Washington has created a legend that has been nourished by anecdotes, each more edifying than the last. Young George? He couldn’t bear to lie and spontaneously confessed to his father that he had broken the branch of the cherry tree. The teenager? He was gifted with such strength that he could throw a stone from one bank of the Rappahannock to the other. In combat, Mason Weems continues, George Washington was invulnerable. The proof is that an Indian warrior fired seventeen shots at him without succeeding in wounding him. General-in-chief, he retained an unshakeable piety and a remarkable sense of his duty towards God and men. In government, his wisdom was infallible.

In short, a knight without fear and without reproach, George Washington is not only one of those founding fathers who made America and that America made. More than a hero, he is a myth. No wonder, then, that one state, seven mountains, eight rivers, ten lakes, thirty-three counties, nine universities, one hundred and twenty-one cities, including the federal capital, bear his name in the States United States, if thousands of children have been and still are named George Washington or Washington, if banknotes, coins and postage stamps are adorned with his effigy, if his head has been cut off, there is about fifty years old, in the granite of Mount Rushmore, if his portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart and his bust sculpted by Houdon are reproduced ad infinitum, if most of the big cities in the world wanted to dedicate a square,a street or a boulevard to it. The conclusion is obvious: George Washington was indeed, to use the famous phrase, “the first in war, the first in peace and the first in the hearts of his fellow citizens”. Why ?

The Washingtons, honorable “bourgeois”


The Washingtons settled in Virginia in the mid-17th century. They came from England and, like many of their compatriots, sought their fortune in America. If they acquired the rank of honorable “bourgeois”, their ease did not exceed an average level. A few decades later, one of their descendants, Augustine Washington, settled in Westmoreland County, acquired seven hundred hectares of land and bought the rights to a thousand hectares located in the Potomac Valley From a first marriage, he has two sons, Lawrence and Augustin. His wife died in 1729. He remarried Mary Bail who brought him a small dowry. On February 22, 1732 [2] a boy was born whose parents named George, followed in a few years by five other children.

The father’s fortune has its ups and downs. He manages to pay for the education of his first two sons and can do nothing for the others. George learned alongside his mother. He does not leave for England, like Lawrence, to study law there. He doesn’t even attend Virginia College of William and Mary. Besides, his interest in things of the mind is limited. A planter can content himself with acquiring notions of Latin, mathematics and good manners. What would be the use of philosophizing? The ambition of the young man is to get a good job in the colonial society of the South, to manage his affairs, to buy and sell land, to increase his fortune honestly. And that takes a lot of energy and persistence.

Indeed, when his father died in 1743, the bulk of the inheritance went to the two eldest. The other children will have to rely only on their abilities and chance. But George Washington benefits from precious help, that of his half-brother. Lawrence taught him a lot, took him with him on trips, notably to Barbados, introduced him to the entourage of the Fairfaxes, the richest landowners in Virginia, gave him a taste for military activities, finally bequeathed him a plantation. which dominates the Potomac and which he named Mount Vernon.Well advised, Washington embarked on land speculation. First a surveyor, in 1748 he accompanied the Fairfaxes to the Shenandoah Valley. The following year, he was in charge of drawing the plan of the future city of Alexandria. Then, he served as official surveyor of Culpeper County. So many opportunities – which he seizes – to build a fortune. He obtained a concession of 700 hectares in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1751 he became one of the partners in the Ohio company which had received, on the other side of the Appalachians, rights to 100,000 hectares. When Lawrence died of tuberculosis in 1752, George Washington inherited 1,600 hectares. He has just turned twenty.

But Virginia’s westward expansion faces obstacles. Indians are more often hostile than friendly. Pennsylvanians have strong ambitions, too. The French, especially, advanced southward from Canada and claimed possession of the Ohio Valley. In 1753, they established Fort Presqu’île on the shores of Lake Erie and threatened Fort Trent, which Virginian merchants had erected on the Forks of the Ohio. Virginia prepares its response. She strengthens her militia, asks London for military assistance, establishes contacts with the Indians. Governor Dinwiddie decides to send a fact-finding mission to the French leaders. Washington directs it and publishes, on its return, a report which is discussed on both sides of the Atlantic. Tension rose in 1754. The French captured Fort Trent and renamed it Fort Duquesne. Dinwiddie then sets up a military expedition which includes 7 officers, 6 non-commissioned officers, 120 soldiers, a doctor and a drummer. The command is entrusted to Washington, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Skirmishes, an ambush in which 10 Frenchmen were killed (treacherously, it would be said in Canada), the siege of Fort Necessity in which Washington and his men had entrenched themselves, and, on July 3, the Virginians capitulated.

The episode showed that, without the help of the metropolis, the colonists will be able to do nothing against the French. It is therefore with deep satisfaction that Virginia welcomes General Braddock and his 1,500 men who arrive from England in 1755. Washington, at the head of 450 militiamen, joins him. The expedition goes up the Potomac Valley, crosses the Appalachians, follows the Youghiogheny and reaches the outskirts of Fort Duquesne. There, she is surprised by a more mobile and inventive adversary. On July 9, at the Battle of the Wilderness, Braddock suffered a final defeat and died of his wounds. Washington takes command, rallies the survivors and beats a retreat .

Back to earth

To tell the truth, the French won a victory without a future. In 1758, they were forced to evacuate Fort Duquesne, which the English hastened to rename Fort Pitt, then Pittsburgh. But Washington, ill, disappointed to see that a colonial is encountering the greatest difficulties in rising in the royal army, prefers to resign. The Seven Years’ War will continue without him. It’s a farewell to arms. And back to the plantation. The young man in search of adventure gives way to the gentleman farmer.His life therefore comprises three centers of interest: the management of his estates, family joys and political activities. Planter, he continues to participate in fruitful land speculations. He ensured the good performance of his farms, closely followed the evolution of the price of tobacco, the main crop in Virginia, kept his accounts carefully, increased the number of his slaves, and carried out agronomic experiments. In short, a shrewd, meticulous and successful business leader. In 1759 he took the plunge and married a young widow. Her name is Martha Dandridge Custis. George Washington adopts the two children she had from her first marriage, which will console him for not having any himself. Martha and George, it was probably not a marriage of love. But their union was happy. And then,Mount Vernon, the Washingtons get a lot of guests. Virginian tradition obliges. A peaceful life, punctuated by the rhythm of the seasons, a little dull.

Washington would have remained a planter like the others if, the day after the restoration of peace, the colonies had not begun to grow impatient with the excesses of the English administration. Since 1758, he had sat in the Chamber of Bourgeois, the colony’s legislative assembly. In Williamsburg, Virginia affairs are discussed there. Then, as the conflict worsens with London, it evokes “American” problems. Washington listens, speaks little and with moderation.

He thinks slowly and calmly. He is not a revolutionary leader. Not very eloquent, he does not deliver those fiery speeches which suggest that one day the colonies will take up arms. Of course, he loves Virginia. In this sense, he is a patriot. But English civilization arouses his admiration. Like most British subjects in the colonies, he is proud to live in the Empire, to share with the subjects of the metropolis the same love of freedom. In fact, he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government.

The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. he is proud to live in the Empire, to share with the subjects of the metropolis the same love of freedom. In fact, he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government.

The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. he is proud to live in the Empire, to share with the subjects of the metropolis the same love of liberty. In fact, he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. to share with the subjects of the metropolis the same love of freedom.

In fact, he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. to share with the subjects of the metropolis the same love of freedom. In fact, he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of colonials. He does not anticipate events.

At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of the colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774.

And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. he wants the king and his parliament to respect the rights of all, including those of the colonials. He does not anticipate events. At most, he grasps its scope. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, he nevertheless became aware of the impossibility of reaching an agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774.

And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. impossibility of reaching agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces. impossibility of reaching agreement with the royal government. The revolution is first made in the minds. Quite naturally, Virginia sent him to the first Continental Congress, which met in Philadelphia in 1774. And he was still one of the colony’s delegates to the second Congress, in 1775. On June 15, he received the command-in-chief continental, i.e. American, forces.

This appointment is surprising. Is he a brilliant strategist, a providential man to whom the colonies should appeal? Certainly not. Washington is no Alexander. His campaigns against the French gave him experience, but they ended in two defeats, following which he had abandoned the uniform. In truth, Congress could appoint to this office other men, at least as competent as himself. Yet Washington fulfills three conditions: First, it is known to members of Congress. No one doubts his determination or his honesty. His hostility to the policies of King George III is a guarantee. Washington will not betray and accept no compromise. Second, he is rich. Perhaps he even passes for richer than he is. But wealth allows the military leader to fulfill his duties with dignity. It shelters him from corruption and spares him the temptation to cling to his command. Third, finally, armed revolt began in Massachusetts. On April 19, 1775, in Lexington, militiamen and English soldiers exchanged fire. There have been deaths. Boston is besieged by the Royal Fleet and the Battle of Bunker Hill is about to begin. It was to bring aid to the Bostonians that Congress voted to create a continental army and named a commander-in-chief. If all the colonies are to feel concerned by the events in New England, it is necessary to designate a southerner, preferably a Virginian since Virginia is the most powerful of the colonies.

Washington’s task is not easy. Congress has defined its mission in these terms: “You have full power and authority to act in the interests of the service, as you define it. Yes, but Congress did not succeed in getting the colonies to obey until July 1776 or the States after the proclamation of independence. What makes Washington’s mission impossible is that Americans don’t like war. Pass again to pick up the rifle to fight the Indians or to make the shot against the English. The Americans are always ready to meet in the village square “at the minute”, and that is why the militiamen are designated by the term minutemen.Agreed for a very limited time effort, to serve for a few days the state i.e. Virginia, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. Serving the United States, on the other hand, does not arouse enthusiasm. The minutemen aspire very quickly to return home to gather the hay, take care of their business and sit down at the corner of the family fireplace. Needless to add that these amateurs know nothing, or almost nothing, of the rules of traditional warfare, that their equipment is not modern, that they hate discipline.

There is more dramatic. We ask both political and military questions. Is the United States preparing for a real war or is it engaging in a brief exchange of arms? Can they count on outside help? Will they be able to make the necessary efforts for victory? What strategy will they oppose to the British soldiers? The solution does not appear clearly at the beginning of the conflict.

Nevertheless, Washington obtained decisive results. He is setting up an army, and that is not the least of his merits. Certainly, it has nothing to do with the mass levy. In the middle of the summer of 1775, it exceeded 16,000 men. In a few months, it melts like snow in the sun. Conscription does not exist. Volunteers are reluctant to commit for more than a year and desertions are numerous. In 1778, the numbers rose to 17,000 soldiers, then fell again. In Yorktown, the Americans are barely 9,000, while the French have an expeditionary force of more than 7,000 men. But finally, the US Army was born. Washington was not discouraged, despite the obstacles.

That’s not all. The instruction must be entrusted to foreign officers. Supplies and equipment must be wrested from the selfishness of States. In 1777, for example, the destitution is dramatic. Clothes, shoes, food are missing. The winter spent at Valley Forge by the soldiers has entered into legend: it is the nadir of the young army. On New Year’s Day 1781, six regiments in Pennsylvania mutinied because the men were hungry and cold, they vainly demanded their pay and they felt the feeling, oh so justified, that the civil power was losing interest in their spell. Was the victory over England then a miracle?

Washington was able to take advantage of the opponent’s weaknesses and mistakes. Just as he took advantage of the advantages of his camp. Moreover, he discovered, by chance, a new and effective tactic: to escape the enemy, to maintain an armed resistance, to launch blows of hand, not to give up. The Americans’ first victory was to continue the fight against Her Majesty’s professional soldiers. If it was the New York and New England militiamen who defeated General Burgoyne’s troops in 1777 at Saratoga, Washington helped them by fixing a large part of the English troops further south. It was he again who knew how to welcome young European nobles, including the Marquis de Lafayette,. All in all, despite the criticisms of which he was the object and the intrigues of which he almost fell victim, George Washington knew how to draw a nascent nation behind him. He was the man for the job and, as such, he deserves to be listed among the great military leaders.

From one presidency to another

On December 4, 1783, George Washington takes leave of his officers. Then he goes to Annapolis, Maryland, where Congress sits. He solemnly resigns from his office. The war is over. He is retiring, he declares, from public life. It’s time to get back to Mount Vernon and put some order in matters that have been neglected for too long. If he wanted to, he could seize power. Some even suggested he have himself proclaimed King of the Americans. Washington is outraged. His model is not Julius Caesar, but Cincinnatus.

A still active Cincinnatus. The general is concerned about the fate of his former comrades in arms. Hero of the new America, he maintains a voluminous correspondence with his compatriots and foreign personalities. As before 1775, there were many visitors to Mount Vernon,which has turned into a mecca of political wisdom. To all of them, Washington uses the same language, that of firmness and order. The states united in a confederation. That is. A confederation that gives disappointing results. It is not strong enough, for example, to impose a common foreign or financial policy on States. The disputes multiply: the State of New York and New Jersey quarrel over customs duties, Virginia and Maryland over fishing rights in the Potomac. Marylanders and Virginians decide to seek a solution and meet at Mount Vernon.They realize that their concerns are also those of other States. Suddenly, they launch an invitation to everyone for 1786 in Annapolis. Finally, a convention is held in Philadelphia the following year. Washington is at the forefront of this reform movement. Cincinnatus left his plow. And nothing seems more normal than his appointment to the presidency of the convention. It is unanimous. Its prestige is disputed by no one.

He thus presides for four months, in the humid heat of the Pennsylvanian summer, over an assembly which adopts a new constitution, the one which still governs political life in the United States. To tell the truth, Washington did not exert a determining influence. He stood above the fray. But his position is unambiguous: the Union will only be saved if it is narrower, if the federal government enjoys greater efficiency.

The work completed, Washington returns home, persuaded, once again, that he is done with political debates. Every American knows, however, that the first president of the United States, the one who will have the heavy responsibility of making the new institutions work, will, of course, be George Washington. No one was surprised when in 1789 he was unanimously elected to the highest office by the electoral college [3]. “I said goodbye to Mount Vernon,he writes in his diary, to private life, to domestic bliss and, soul oppressed by feelings more painful and painful than I can say, I took the road to New York [4]. The triumphal journey lasts eleven days. Wherever he goes, he receives the welcome reserved for heroes. Ovations, speeches of welcome, triumphal arches, laurel wreaths, parades of veterans, dozens of boats escorting him across the Hudson… Definitely, the Americans find themselves in him . An engraving shows him on his horse, waving to the crowd, surrounded by young girls who pour thousands of rose petals from their baskets. The caption: “The hero who defended mothers will protect their daughters. »

After the cheers, the worries of everyday life. Washington has the formidable honor of setting the style of the presidency and the guidelines of US policy. He could have transformed the republic into a monarchical regime. He strongly refuses. If he resigns himself to running for the presidency a second time, he rejects the idea of ​​a third term. He could have let Congress take over and weaken the presidential office. On the contrary, it strives to maintain a fair balance. And, for the main posts in his cabinet, he appealed to men as different as Jefferson, appointed Secretary of State, and Hamilton, appointed Secretary of the Treasury.

This is where the difficulties begin. Jefferson wishes that the United States remain a democracy of small owners, that the States preserve their rights, that in a word the physiocratic thought prevails. Hamilton aspires to industrialize his country, to provide it with a central bank that would manage credit. It’s up to Washington to decide. He takes the side of the Secretary of the Treasury. Inevitable consequence: the partisans of Jefferson gather in a party, that of the republican democrats, while the partisans of Hamilton find themselves within the federalist party. The consensus of 1789 gives way to the spirit of faction. Washington no longer escapes attacks. The hero, descended from his pedestal, is no more than a politician like the others.

Isolationism is born

Moreover, his foreign policy also divides the Americans. In 1793, Europe was set ablaze. Revolutionary France stands against England and its allies. Will the United States also have to choose sides?

The Jeffersonians point out that without the Franco-American Treaty of 1778 the young republic could not have ensured its independence, that between the American Revolution and the French Revolution in its first phase the convergences are stronger than the divergences. They demand a military intervention alongside France. Hamiltonians are crying foul, at the betrayal of the Frenchified.They have no sympathy for the Girondins and harbor a real hatred for the mountain people. Rapprochement with Great Britain? It is caution for the four million Americans. In a word, neutrality in the European conflict is essential. Again, you have to choose. Washington agrees with the Hamiltonians and Jefferson leaves the government. Isolationism was born, which the president defined a little more precisely in his farewell message of September 1796. Much more: in 1794, the president agreed to sign a treaty with England which settled the Anglo-American dispute and seemed confer more advantages on London.

The attacks of the Republican-Democrats redouble their vigour. Journalists do not spare President Washington. One of them writes: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, it was the American nation by Washington. ” At the end of the second mandate, the same journalist observes: ” If there was a period conducive to satisfaction, it is today. All hearts, in unison with the liberty and happiness of the people, must exult, for the name of Washington ceases from this day to open the way to political iniquity and to justify corruption. Washington has had a bitter experience: it is easier to save one’s country than to govern it.

So we guess his relief, when the hour of retirement has come. No sooner had the handover ceremony ended than he rushed to Virginia. As if to make up for lost time and finally taste the charms of the countryside. It is true that a lot of work awaits him: the house, the fields, the managers, accounts always confused. Life as a gentleman farmer begins again. With a very short intermission in 1798, the time of an international crisis, when President John Adams asked Washington to resume command of the American army. Now Washington leads the quiet life of a grandfather, a planter, a veteran.

Legends…

On December 14, 1799, the inevitable finally happened. The old general caught a cold. His condition rapidly worsened. The doctors don’t know how to treat him. He died at 11:30 a.m. With a lot of dignity, assure the witnesses, and the certainty that we must settle “the debt that we must all pay”. The burial is simple. No state funeral with great spectacle. The burial is in the family vault, in Mount Vernon, a few tens of meters from the main building. It is also there that Martha will rest in 1802. Since then, the two graves have remained in the same place.

Adored and hated during his lifetime, Washington only entered into legend after his death. Far from being forgotten or fading from collective memory, his memory has continued to grow. Among all those who created the United States, he consolidated his aura. Benjamin Franklin was able to attract France to the cause of the insurgents, but did not play a major role after 1785. Thomas Jefferson brilliantly illustrated 18th century American culture, wrote the Declaration of Independence and was one of the great presidents of the States States, but he participated in the birth of political parties, had an equivocal attitude on slavery and remained a controversial figure in American history for a long time. Patrick Henry, who first proclaimed himself “American”, George Mason, Samuel and John Adams, James Madison never had the stature of national heroes. George Washington occupied and still occupies a special place. Not that he aroused sympathy or familiarity. On the contrary. He was never one of those politicians who shake hands and kiss babies. He never tolerated the slightest friendly gesture towards her. It is said that Governor Morris, a figure in American politics, wanted to prove how close he was to the general. During a public meeting, he put his hand on Washington’s shoulder. With the greatest coldness and firmness that one can imagine, he took the indiscreet hand and took it away from him. Morris did not start again and everyone understood. occupied and still occupies a special place. Not that he aroused sympathy or familiarity.

On the contrary. He was never one of those politicians who shake hands and kiss babies. He never tolerated the slightest friendly gesture towards her. It is said that Governor Morris, a figure in American politics, wanted to prove how close he was to the general. During a public meeting, he put his hand on Washington’s shoulder. With the greatest coldness and firmness that one can imagine, he took the indiscreet hand and took it away from him. Morris did not start again and everyone understood. occupied and still occupies a special place. Not that he aroused sympathy or familiarity. On the contrary. He was never one of those politicians who shake hands and kiss babies. He never tolerated the slightest friendly gesture towards her. It is said that Governor Morris, a figure in American politics, wanted to prove how close he was to the general. During a public meeting, he put his hand on Washington’s shoulder. With the greatest coldness and firmness that one can imagine, he took the indiscreet hand and took it away from him. Morris did not start again and everyone understood. never tolerated the slightest friendly gesture towards him. It is said that Governor Morris, a figure in American politics, wanted to prove how close he was to the general. During a public meeting, he put his hand on Washington’s shoulder. With the greatest coldness and firmness that one can imagine, he took the indiscreet hand and took it away from him. Morris did not start again and everyone understood. never tolerated the slightest friendly gesture towards him. It is said that Governor Morris, a figure in American politics, wanted to prove how close he was to the general. During a public meeting, he put his hand on Washington’s shoulder. With the greatest coldness and firmness that one can imagine, he took the indiscreet hand and took it away from him. Morris did not start again and everyone understood.

Moreover, everything in Washington’s behavior inspires respect and provokes distance. The portraits do not give us the deep feelings of the man. The mask is impenetrable, the air serious, even sad, the bearing aristocratic. With her powdered wig, her panties and her silk stockings, Washington embodies the world of gentlemen. HASsure enough, the neighbors of his youth, the Fairfaxes, would have admired him. The older he gets, the more he is one of them. Strange paradox! This gentleman, so perfectly English, a fox hunter, a great landowner, an uncrowned monarch, came to symbolize the young America, an independent republic, on the march towards democracy, a nation in search of itself. . So much so that today his birth is celebrated in all the states of the Union, as if Washington’s Birthday were equivalent to Independence Day. Moreover, the Congress awarded him in 1976, on the occasion of the bicentenary, the highest rank in the military hierarchy.

“His Highness the President”?

And yet, his intellectual qualities do not arouse enthusiasm. In his speech of April 30, 1789, Washington evokes “his mediocre talents”, his inexperience “of the duties of civil administration” and recalls “the acute feeling of his insufficiency”. Excessive modesty, no doubt. But the fact remains that its cultivation is limited. Unlike Franklin, John Adams or Jefferson, he never left North America.

The refinement of the European cultures of his time, he does not know. He knows nothing of the atmosphere of Versailles and London.

“Provincial” Washington is the embodiment of colonial Virginia. His political thought he summed up in the farewell speech of September 1796: “The maintenance of the Union, he wrote, must be the principal object of the wishes of every American patriot. A banal theme, it seems, but one that will not be without resonances during the half-century preceding the Civil War. In the field of relations with other nations: “Europe has interests which do not concern us at all or which only affect us very remotely. It would therefore be contrary to wisdom to form knots which would expose us to the inconveniences caused by revolutions in his policy. “An opinion of circumstances, a judgment of common sense for a nation still very weak and populated by barely four million inhabitants. But this isolationism will survive, for the most part, until the 20th century.

All in all, Washington defended a few simple ideas and left his country stronger than he had found it. Finances have been consolidated. Territorial expansion continued. The foreigner respected the United States. It’s a success that has nothing to despise. Washington was a great president who also knew how to ensure “the greatness and the difficulty of this position of trust”. This is because, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, a nation almost always had a king or a queen, an emperor, a prince or a bishop as its leader, that is to say a man or a woman who held his authority of God, a high dignitary invested with prestige and authority. In the United States, a change of scenery. The president is elected, indirectly, by the people. Chosen, that is new, if not revolutionary. It embodies popular sovereignty. We don’t even know what to call it. The Senate moves: “His Highness the President of the United States of America. Pompous and too regal. This is not the American way. The House of Representatives adopts a simpler formula: “Mr. President”. We will address him, as we address an ordinary citizen, while knowing that he exercises for a time the highest public function.

Washington hastened to give the presidency its proper place. He shows himself to the crowd on a white horse. He demands respect from all since he speaks on behalf of the country. He gladly receives visitors but fixes his day and hour for the audiences he grants. He understood that the presidency is a new idea in the United States and in the world, that it should therefore neither be underestimated nor overestimated. In a word, he invented the presidency and created the precedents that his successors will take up. And when we know what prestige the Americans confer on the supreme magistracy, especially in the 20th century, we can safely conclude that Washington, a happy and honest president, is firmly installed at the top of the American Pantheon.

An extraordinary hero

However, before historians wrote their scholarly books, Washington had turned into a legendary figure. This metamorphosis, he owes it to a popular writer who sensed and exploited the needs of his compatriots. Her name ? Mason Weems, the “Pastor” Weems as he used to call himself to give more moral weight to his works. Weems wanted to give Americans an extraordinary hero [4]. Europe has had its heroes, he said; why shouldn’t America have its own? He made no secret of his goal: to make money “in old George’s bones.” To sell a lot of copies, you have to write with simple minds in mind. No need to dwell on political events or seek the truth, the only truth. anecdotes, of countless anecdotes, that’s what the Americans want. It should be shown that if Washington experienced “an unprecedented rise”, it is because it is “the fruit of its great virtues: 1) its veneration of God and its religious principles; 2) his patriotism; 3) his magnanimity; 4) his hard work; 5) his temperance and sobriety; 6) his justice, etc. Thus I commend […] his great virtues to the youth who will follow his example”.

With Weems, biography turns into hagiography, the story of a life and political action into a golden legend. An excellent recipe, no doubt, since Washington became, in the first half of the 19th century, a best-selling hero. And the portrait, painted without nuances, without critical spirit, deeply marked the American conscience. All the more deeply as the national feeling took root, as people got into the habit of celebrating Independence Day and delivering fiery speeches in honor of the founding fathers. Washington has united Americans of all walks of life, southerners and northerners, new and old immigrants, Democrats and Republicans.

In this sense, he twice served as a founding father. A first time during his lifetime, when he galvanized the ardor of his compatriots against the English and consolidated the federal institutions. A second time, after his death, by bringing together in celebration of his memory Americans from all over the world, uncertain of their cultural identity. Willy-nilly, George Washington was the hero the New World needed.

1. Marcus Cunliffe has published a good critical edition: Mason L. Weems, The Life of Washington,Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1962. 2. The British colonies in North America then followed the Julian calendar. So Washington was actually born on February 11 (old style) or February 22 (new style). 3. Recall that the President of the United States is elected in two stages. The States begin by designating the electors. In 1789, the legislative assemblies were entrusted with this mission. Then, the electors, who make up the electoral college, choose the president by an absolute majority.

Washington was the only president to be elected unanimously. 4. We will refer to the excellent chapter, entitled “Birth of a myth: George Washington”, in D. Boorstin, History of the Americans, Paris, Armand Colin, 1981. 5.Patrick Henry (1736-1799) distinguished himself before and during the revolution by his patriotism and his talent as an orator. He was governor of Virginia (1776-1779). George Mason (1725-1792), a wealthy Virginia planter, wrote his state’s bill of rights that served as the model for the Declaration of Independence. Samuel Adams (1722-1802) was one of the Boston leaders of the revolt against the authority of George III and organized, in particular, the Boston Tea Party of 1773.

All three have in common to have spoken out against the Constitution of 1787 in the name of States’ rights. John Adams(1735-1826), the cousin of Samuel, took part in the negotiation of the treaty of Paris of 1783, was minister of the United States in Great Britain from 1785 to 1788. vice-president (1789-1797) and president of the United States- States (1797-1801). James Madison (1751-1836), a friend of Jefferson, vigorously defended the 1787 Constitution, helped found the Democratic-Republican Party, served as Secretary of State from 1801 to 1809, and succeeded Jefferson as President of the United States. States (1809-1817).

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