A few years ago, I took a deposition in a shabby hotel in the magnificently named town of King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The town may be famous for its mall (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_of_Prussia_Mall), but its real value lies in its proximity to Valley Forge. To my mind, Valley Forge is our Bethlehem. At Valley Forge, the trinity of the army, the nation, and the cause merged into one man. For anyone else except George Washington, this claim would be an absurd example of a garden-variety reification fallacy. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reification_(fallacy).
But George Washington the symbol is actually the same as George Washington the man. And Valley Forge National Park proves it.
The National Park Service overseas this sacred site. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valley_Forge. The Park’s emotional center is the array of (rebuilt) small log cabins, where often shoeless Continentals froze during the winter of 1777-1778. These cramped, primitive structures are almost a perfect metaphor for state of the Continental Army during that cruel winter. However, any emotions of sympathy felt by a visitor quickly turn to anger when you consider Valley Forge lies in Philadelphia’s shadow. And Washington’s men starved while British soldiers rested comfortably in winter quarters, often being entertained in the homes of the “best families” of the City of Brotherly Love. Many of those “good people” enriched themselves by supplying both General George Washington and British General William Howe. Alas, seasons come and go, but the fence-sitters will always be with us.
Maintaining the Continental Army at Valley Forge was (IMHO) the second of Washington’s three great achievements. The first was steadying some of General Braddock’s panicked troops during the catastrophic Battle of Monongehela on July 9, 1755.
See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braddock_Expedition. According to Ron Chernow in “Washington: A Life,” Colonel Washington was appalled by the complete collapse of discipline that beset the Redcoats once their officers began falling. See http://www.amazon.com/Washington-A-Life-Ron-Chernow/dp/0143119966. In the disorder, Redcoats fired into their own ranks and into the ranks of allied colonial militiamen.
Facing almost certain annihilation, Washington steadied a remnant and his grace under fire allowed them to disengage and survive. Although he was only 23, the youthful Colonel Washington was already the father of the man (General Washington) who similarly steadied his retreating forces at the Battle of Monmouth on July 28, 1778.
Thanks to Washington, the city that now bears his name governs the richest and most powerful nation on Earth. That city in our time thrives despite the arrogance, veniality, and deceitfulness of its residents. But unlike Washington’s era, our time is one of obfuscation and exaggerated threats. Politicians, for example, blabber about the jihadi menace as an “existential fight for our survival,” but then cynically recast extremists like Zahran Alloush as “moderates.” For those of you who may have wet a hanky over this recently departed “freedom fighter,” remember he was accused of putting Alawite women in cages as human shields. Here is some background on his group: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaysh_al-Islam.
Back to Washington.
Washington’s third great achievement was retiring at height of his power and prestige. We often overlook the magnitude of this act. He could have been president for as long as he wanted. Instead, he returned to Mount Vernon. Scan the globe for similar examples. They are few indeed.
Washington was the Revolution made flesh. He was the necessary First and Greatest American. And by retiring, he foreclosed in our collective mind the idea that any subsequent American is—or should be--indispensible. The man became the idea and then became the man again.
Now that is truly exceptional.