The Fourth of July weekend seems an ideal time to consider our indebtedness; not the $22 trillion federal government owes but the debt we owe to George Washington. It is not the kind of debt that can be repaid — at least not with money.
Washington is truly the father of our country. Without him, the United States of America would in all likelihood not exist. On Independence Day that is something to remember, to recognize, and, in these troubled times, contemplate.
With support from Congress that was marginal at best, he kept the Continental Army alive — attacking frequently enough to make a collection of inexperienced volunteers, wet, cold, and hungry, often shoeless, seem like a genuine military threat to the British.
It is difficult to imagine that there was anyone else that had the leadership skills to hold the Continental Army together. And it is even harder to believe that there was anyone else that had his strategic perspective to recognize that losing battles and surviving, keeping the revolution alive, was a winning strategy; to stand and fight, and be wiped out was not.
As our first president he set standards for integrity, dedication and skill that have stood as a model for subsequent elected holders of that office.
He was aware that European leaders, including England’s King George III, did not view the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of the United States as necessarily settling matters for all time. They would have liked nothing better than an opportunity to reclaim their rebellious colonies and commercial interests in North America.
If they hadn’t been so distracted by squabbles with each other, the European nations would have been even more of an immediate threat to our new nation.
George Washington was a perceptive man who could foresee that some of the disruptive forces in our own country, which were emerging in our post-revolution years, could threaten the stability of our country by disuniting us.
One of those disruptive forces he identified was the growth of political parties. They were not yet the organizations that we know today; they were more like “pop-up” parties pursuing single interests of one sort or another. Of course, pop-up parties are still with us, and are as potentially destructive as ever. In his address, he wrote that, “They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party….” It all sounds alarmingly familiar.
Despite our debt to him, George Washington today is receiving criticism from some quarters for being, like so many other Virginia planters, a slaveholder.
The raw economics of the plantations at that time demanded a constant flow of borrowed money for expansion into new acreage as existing land’s fertility was exhausted. Even with this debt overhang, though, there was money to be made by cotton and other commodity producers on these mostly southern lands if you kept labor costs down. The answer for those colonies, as we know, was slave labor. The unappealing alternative, for many debt-leveraged planters was bankruptcy.
We can never actually repay George Washington for the sacrifices he made for liberty during the Revolutionary War or afterwards, to serve as our first president when he wanted nothing more than to retire to Mount Vernon. president. We most certainly cannot repay him by writing a check to any of his heirs that could be traced. The best we can do is to pay him honor, recognition and respect.
We owe a different sort of debt to those who labored as slaves and found that liberty didn’t apply to them. And when, almost a century after the Revolution, it finally did apply, at least to their descendants, it didn’t mean the disappearance of discrimination and economic hardship.
In 1960, Oscar Brown, Jr. wrote a song called “Forty Acres and a Mule,” whose popularity had a hand in gradually transforming a localized Union Army postwar field order into our current idea of reparations.
Clearly, we need a better answer than the divisive strategies of office-seekers. It is not clear, though, that writing checks to generationally distant relatives would accomplish much. Besides being an extension of identity politics, these are dismissive and based on fundamentally flawed economics.
What we need is an economically sound program that contains the crucial elements of recognition, honor and respect. Honest employment meets that standard and we should continue to push the economy’s level of job creation upward so that there is no longer any room for discrimination or disrespect. It could happen and it would be a great way to honor George Washington and all those who came before us.
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