Van Ens: Bush no George Washington
Veteran Commander George Washington amassed great power, winning two battles fought at Trenton in late 1776 and then defeating British Redcoats near Princeton on January 3, 1777. After gaining military muscle, why didn’t he flex it as does a warlord? Why didn’t Washington strut his military stuff like Napoleon? Many colonials would gladly have crowned him their benevolent dictator. Washington didn’t unilaterally render edicts, even when public adulation swirled around him for his military prowess.
David Hackett Fischer who wrote Washington’s Crossing, a definitive study of the two pivotal Trenton battles, followed by a strategic victory at Princeton, describes how Washington wisely went to war. After their surprise attack on the Hessians after Christmas Eve in 1776, “Washington and his army had difficult choices about a plan of operations, the design of the defensive battle, and the concentration of the
American army at Trenton,” Fischer notes. Pinpointing Washington’s source of wisdom that sustained him in battle, Fischer observes, “Washington was at the center of all these decisions, functioning more as a leader than a commander; (italics mine) always listening, inspiring, guiding; rarely demanding, commanding, coercing.”
He wasn’t cocky, like so many biblical warriors. Each suffered the same fatal flaw, declared John Bright, my teacher of Old Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. The warring biblical kings, Bright quipped, “acted like self-made men who worshipped their creator ” themselves.” Washington didn’t bow before a made-up mind.
Fischer in his book maintains Washington respected a fundamental fact upon which our republic was built. Colonial civil and military leaders worked out a system of accountability in war. They recognized how politicians and generals wrestled with each other to determine who made unilateral decisions to protect our nation from terror.
Washington believed he was accountable to the people through their representatives in Congress. He didn’t compete with Congress in furthering the national good. He didn’t protect our country’s destiny through fiat. Nor did he surround himself with yes-men. Author Fischer describes how Washington, from the start of the Revolutionary War to its completion, “worked hard to establish the principle of civil control over military affairs, and always respected it.”
Washington led; the British generals commanded. He negotiated with his military aides; the Redcoat officers ruled over subordinates.
What happens when Washington’s wise listening and negotiation skills are missing?
The Bush Doctrine clashes with Washington’s wise ways. Bush the Younger favors assertive action. He has no second thoughts about leading unilaterally.
The adage Washington exemplified Bush doesn’t respect: the President proposes and Congress disposes. Bush the Younger flips it on its head, leaving Congress to dutifully follow his initiatives. By George, that’s not the way Washington conducted our nation’s business in war and peace.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the non-profit, Creative Growth Ministries, (www.thelivinghistory.com). Van Ens’s book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores.