Channelling George Washington: The Glorious Fourth (Again)

Historians/History




Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Here we are again, about to celebrate our most important holiday. What did we talk about last year?”
 
The deep voice was surprisingly mellow, considering the thorny path we’d traveled in the past twelve months.  We’d discussed what’s wrong with congressional government and why we’ll always need a strong president.  We’d called for an end to campaign finance laws.  We’d jousted with Tom Jefferson about his legacy and been rebuked by Martha.  We warned Barack Obama that all the ex-presidents in Elysium were watching him.

“We talked about revolutions in the contemporary world.  How the Iranians had made a try for democracy and fell tragically short.  How Venezuela and Ecuador were in the grip of upheavals led by demagogues who talked democracy and practiced tyranny.  How Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was on life support, while he’s rumored to be in the same shape.”

“Nothing much has changed in those countries, except the growing economic collapse of Venezuela and the almost total extinction of democracy in Iran.”

“That led us to a discussion of the American Revolution, in which you described how long and complicated it had been, and how close we came to losing.”

“Long wars create their own problems.  In 1776, when I changed our strategy from winning in one big battle to a protracted war, I knew it was risky.  But the one big battle idea was a recipe for certain disaster.  I tried to ward off the other threat by repeatedly telling people:  ‘We cannot lose as long as we stay in the game.’”

“How else did you try to prevent what we might call spiritual fatigue?”

“By reminding people as often as possible why we were fighting.  To protect a free society that we’d created, long before we exchanged shots with the British in Massachusetts.  No one has put it better than that fellow who was one of the leaders of the Bunker Hill fight—William Prescott.  Let’s see if I can remember it:

‘Our forefathers passed the vast Atlantic, spent their blood and treasure, that they might enjoy their liberties, both civil and religious, and transmit them to their posterity.  Their children have waded through seas of difficulties to leave us free and happy in the enjoyment of English privileges.  Now if we should give them up, can our children rise up and call us blessed?  Is not a glorious death in defense of our liberties better than a short infamous life, and our memory to be had in detestation to the latest posterity?’

He wrote that two full years before the Declaration of Independence.”

“It’s what makes our revolution unique.  Americans weren’t French peasants or Russian serfs.  They saw themselves as born with the freedom to elect their own political leaders and have the right to a trial by a jury of their peers.  The British were threatening to deprive us of these freedoms.  Tom Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence was basically a synthesis of the free society he saw all around him.  Tom himself more or less admitted it when he said he wrote it without consulting a single book or pamphlet.”

“Were there other dangers in our eight year war for independence, besides spiritual fatigue?”

“Disunity.  More and more in the last years of the war, I warned people:  ‘I see one head turning into thirteen.’  As I’ve said more than once, it was the experience of watching thirteen states heading in often disastrously wrong directions that convinced me we had to have a central government headed by a strong president.”

“Why did so many people fall in love with the French Revolution while you were president?”

“It was wildly ambitious.  They were going to change everything, junk religion, abandon sexual restraint, punish so-called enemies of the people with the guillotine.  It appealed to the illusion that we can achieve some sort of ultimate perfection, total happiness.  Basically, it ignored the realities of human nature.”

“You were always strong on that point, weren’t you?”

“I’m afraid I almost became a bore about it.  ‘We must take men as they are, not as we wish them to be,’ I maintained.  A government shouldn’t try to inflict huge drastic changes.  People can’t deal with them. Change should be gradual.”

“Does any of this apply to the long war we’re fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan?”

“I knew that question was on both our minds.  Both these wars have deep links to the ideas and ideals of our revolution.  In the last fifty years, we’ve been forced to ask ourselves how much we’re willing to spend in money and blood to see our freedoms achieved in other parts of the world.  We had to answer this question for the first time little more than two years after World War II. “

“Are you referring to our confrontation with the Soviet Union over Greece and Turkey?”

“Yes.  We’d watched with growing distress while the communists destroyed free governments in Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern European countries.  In 1947 the British, who had been fighting to protect Greece from a Soviet takeover, suddenly announced they were broke and handed us the problem.  They also informed us that Turkey was on the brink of a similar political and economic collapse.”

“I remember that vividly.  It was a huge challenge for an accidental president, as a lot of people derisively called Harry Truman.”

“When it comes to vice presidents becoming presidents, Harry Truman was the luckiest accident in our history.  By the time he left office in 1952, people like Winston Churchill were saying he had saved Western civilization.  Harry saw what was at stake in Greece and Turkey.  If the communists took them over, the shock could topple free governments in other parts of Europe.  He went to work on persuading Congress and the American people to meet the challenge by loaning these countries hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“He gave a great speech to Congress. I remember it made me proud to be an American.”    

“It might help us see what we’re fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan, if we took a few minutes to ponder the central words in Mr. Truman’s speech.

At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life.  The choice is too often not a free one.

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority.  It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio, fixed elections and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

This is a serious course on which we embark.  I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious.  If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.’”

“Some people have compared those words to the Monroe Doctrine.  I can see why.”

“They’re a charter of freedom for the whole world.”

HNN Special: The Glorious Fourth

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Nat Bates - 7/14/2010

Yes, Washington would uphold our Revolution as different than those of the French or Socialists. But, there is an important difference between his perspective and what seems to be written here. Washington was not an interventionist. He was an isolationist opposed to militarism.


Jonathan Dresner - 7/4/2010

Is Mr. Fleming really calling the Monroe Doctrine -- an attempt to carve out an American imperium by dictate -- a cry for freedom?

My Greek history is a little weak, but my recollection is that Truman and his successors were supporting dictatorial regimes whose view of democracy was, if anything, less tenable than the communist one which was viciously suppressed -- along with all other leftist views -- in the name of "freedom." Is this how Mr. Fleming sees the Revolution?

How sad.