Washington Irving, author of “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” was named by his mother after the first president of the United States — who, it is said, blessed the lad early on, leading the boy to determine then and there to write the definitive biography of the man his mother so greatly admired. It was eventually written and, when Irving was 78, printed in five volumes. While somewhat adulatory, it is reputed to be one of the very best biographies of the remarkable first president. Sadly, it is currently out of print. Fortunately for us, however, the five volumes have been reduced to one fairly large paperback by Charles Neider who did a remarkable editing job and provided us with a very fine biography — and one well worth reading.
Early on in Washington’s career he was involved in the debacle led by the English General Braddock against the French and Indians in the West of the United States — Pennsylvania and Ohio, as it was then. Braddock was bull-headed and insisted on fighting the French and Indians the way he might have fought the Spanish or the Germans in Europe — marching to battle with much musical fanfare, colors flying, and loud drums in tight formations in the middle of the American wilderness, easy pickings for the French and Indians waiting for them behind trees and rocks and attacking amidst loud war-cries. Braddock’s forces were decimated by a group half its side; those who survived fled in a panic. Braddock himself was killed and Washington had two horses shot from beneath him and later discovered four holes in his uniform from musket balls. He had tried to warn Braddock, since he himself had once before fought against the same foes with a small group of militia from Virginia which met nearly the same fate. Washington had learned his lesson, but Braddock wasn’t going to listen to a brash, young colonial who hadn’t ever received proper (English) military training. So much for smug self-complacency.
Washington Irving tells us about the lessons George Washington learned from his two failures and from his earlier experience in the wilderness surveying for a close family friend for little or no wages.
“In a letter to his brother Augustine, then a member of Assembly at Williamsburg, [Washington] casts up the result of his frontier experience. ‘I was employed,’ he writes, ‘to go on a journey in the winter, when I believe few or none would have undertaken it, and what did I get by it? — my expenses borne! I was then appointed, with trifling pay, to conduct a handful of men to Ohio. What did I get by that? Why, after putting myself to a considerable expense in equipping and providing necessaries for the campaign, I went out, was soundly beaten and lost all! Came in, and had my commission taken from me, or, in other words, my command reduced under pretense of an order from [England]. I then went out a volunteer with General Braddock and lost all my horses and many other things. But this being a voluntary act, I ought not to mention it, nor should I have done it, were it not to show that I have been on the losing order ever since I entered the service, which is now nearly two years.’
“What a striking lesson is furnished by this brief summary! How little was he aware of the vast advantages he was acquiring in this school of bitter experience! ‘In the hand of Heaven he stood,’ to be shaped and trained for its great purpose, and every trial and vicissitude of his early life fitted him to cope with one or another of the varied and multifarious duties of his future destiny.”
What a striking lesson, indeed. So here we are told that one of the greatest men this country ever produced learned valuable lessons from his failures! Can you believe it? We know better, of course, because social scientists in what Christopher Lasch disdainfully calls our “helping professions” have convinced us that we shouldn’t allow the kids to fail, either in school or at home: it’s bad for their self-esteem. Welcome to the age of entitlement.
One day soon, after our culture fades into oblivion, and the “counter-culture” has become firmly entrenched, the epitaph will be written and it will go something like this: “These people were stupid enough to listen to supposed “experts” who told them that children shouldn’t fail. If they had used common sense and read some history they would have known better.”