Open main menu

Page:Collier's New Encyclopedia v. 10.djvu/356

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.




necessary to the peace and prosperity of the colonies.

He was no revolutionist, but neither was he afraid to trust the conclusions of his own mind; and if he was no orator, he was at least not the man to mince his words. Cæsar himself did not more thoroughly see the necessity for one-man rule at Rome than Washington saw the necessity for public independence in America. He declared at Williamsburg, in 1774, that he was ready to raise 1,000 men, support them at his own expense, and march them to the relief of Boston. A few weeks later he rode on horseback with Patrick Henry and Edmund Pendleton to attend the 1st Continental Congress in Philadelphia. He was, by the confession of Henry himself, easily the greatest man among the delegates. The 2d Congress saw him again in attendance, and ready to give his life for his country. But though he could brave death he could not face praise, and he left the chamber when John Adams nominated him to Commander-in-Chief of the Continental forces. The next day he accepted the post, while protesting his own unworthiness and refusing to accept any pay beyond a reimbursement of his expenses. No Roman of old ever came forward to save the State with purer intentions or with more favorable auguries of success. Though to weaker spirits the prospect was appalling, strong men drew happy omens, not from the flight of birds and the entrails of victims, but from the justice of the common cause and the character of Washington. Nor did they mistake, nor do we now mistake, when we assign the success of the Revolution to these two causes.

As one traces the weary years that elapsed between his taking command (July 3, 1775) and his laying down his office (Dec. 23, 1783), it is perceived clearly that under Providence the issue of the mighty struggle depended on him. Had he lost heart at the supineness and bickerings of the people at large, had he grown weary of correcting the blunders of incapable subordinates, had he disdained to control a fatuous Congress, or to put down a wretched cabal among his own officers, had his nerves given way at the sight of the sufferings at Valley Forge, had his spirit wavered at frequent defeat — in short, had he been anything but the noble patriot and great commander that he was, the course of history might have been changed, and the United States might have died in its birth and forever, or come into existence again years later and under far different auspices. But he was Washington — the noblest figure that any people has ever set in the forefront of its life and history. While he lived and fought on with his ragged troops, the Union was maintained in spite of all State squabbles; while he was in command, any alliance made with France must be one which America could accept with dignity; while his brave heart beat, repulse meant only fresh resolve, and hardship and suffering only more splendid rewards of triumph.

It is idle to deny that he was the soul of the Revolution, and it is equally idle to ask whether or not he was a great general. Whether he was, technically speaking, a master of the art of war, students of that art may decide; though it is as well to remind them that Frederick the Great praised his Trenton campaign as a masterpiece of strategy. But that he is worthy to rank with the supreme commanders of history, no man of sound judgment and capable imagination will deny. Not that he always won his battles, or won them in the most approved way; not that he flamed like a comet in the heavens, threatening desolation to the nations; not that he moved across the world's stage like a Karl or a Timor. His career does not enthrall us as does that of Alexander; it has not such tragic elements of inspiration and pathos as has that of Hannibal; it does not leave us breathless with admiration as does that of Cæsar; it does not exalt us and horrify us as does that of Napoleon. But it does give us that supreme sense of satisfaction which flows from the perception of harmony and proportion; it does thrill us with the intense and elevated joy which must ever follow the spectacle of great powers consciously working for the successful accomplishment of divine justice; it does fascinate us by means of those elements of sublimity and pathos that are never absent from the contemplation of a lonely but serene elevation above the common tide of humanity.

Nor are concrete evidences of his greatness as a soldier lacking. We remember the Berserker rashness and daring displayed at Fort Duquesne and at Monmouth, and we recall William the Conqueror at Hastings. We watch him at the crossing of the Delaware and at Valley Forge, and we recall Hannibal on the Alps. We observe him turning a ragged body of suspicious New Englanders into trained soldiers ready to die for him, and we recall no less a man than Cæsar. We see him put down the Conway cabal and reduce Congress to his bidding, and we recall Marlborough. We see him quell Lee with his fiery eye and biting words, and we somehow recall Cromwell. We watch him in his tent, brooding over the treason of Arnold and