George Washington’s Failures

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 size; 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.”

Taxing Situation

I have been reading a history of early British America — America before the revolution. It is intriguing. The Americans were a recalcitrant people who really didn’t want to cooperate with the British in protecting their own frontier. Further, they were a bit of a burden to the British who spent hundreds of thousands of pounds over seven years protecting that frontier against the French and Indians in the New World. It was costing the British about £350,000 a year to maintain their army in America even after the war.

Of course, the British had been fighting the French for centuries so that was nothing new. But the fact that they had to protect fiercely independent colonists across the pond against an ancient foe and their new allies was not something they welcomed. And the fact that it cost thousands of pounds and placed the Mother country in debt up to her ears created tensions between Britain and its New World colonies. The solution proposed by Lord of the Treasury George Grenville was to tax the colonists and recoup some of the losses.

The initial tax in 1733 (in the form of a “duty”) was on molasses that came from the West Indies and was used by New Englanders to make rum. The tax was generally ineffective and simply encouraged smuggling in the colonies. But when the sugar tax was levied in 1763, and actively enforced, it began to bring the disparate colonies together as one and to create strong resistance that eventually led to the Revolution. Until I read this book I was unaware of how independent each of the colonies was from the others and yet how the people in the distinct colonies all felt themselves to be British citizens — and therefore privileged above the rest of the world — but not the least bit beholden to the Mother Country for protecting them against enemies. But it was taxation that brought them together and actually helped to create some sense of unity out of the diverse — and very different — American colonies (think: Massachusetts and Virginia who were worlds apart in so many ways and never really got on the same page).

Taxation, especially the Stamp Act, got the colonists all riled up; it was something to be avoided like the plague. That has never changed. We still lump taxes together with death as the two things we fear most and neither of which can be avoided. And it is that attitude that has given birth to the Tea Party and its insistence that there be no more taxes — in the spirit of the early colonists about whom I dare say most Tea Partiers know very little, if anything at all.

The problem is that there is another side to the issue: taxes are essential for the running of the individual states and the country itself whether we like it or not. And as noted by one of my favorite blog-buddies, our country is taxed at a lower rate than almost every other developed country in the world yet we complain the loudest. Perhaps this is part of our inheritance (as noted above, we have a long tradition of complaining about taxes), but it is unseemly and also unworldly. Taxes are essential to the well-being of each and every one of us. As noted by another of my favorite bloggers, our tax money does immense good. Not only are taxes necessary to maintain a strong defense against terrorism (a point that is accepted by almost all) but they are also necessary to maintain social programs that benefit those who are most in need and ultimately make us a stronger nation (a point that is rejected by many).

To be sure there are abuses, as critics are quick to point out. They know — or have heard about — a fellow who takes his student loans and buys himself a new car, or, perhaps, $15,000 worth of weapons that are later used in a shooting in a movie theater. These things certainly happen. But this money also makes it possible for people in need to keep their collective heads above water, to buy food, clothing, and shelter for their struggling families. And we must never forget that. Instead of focusing on the abuses and the waste we can all attest to, let’s instead focus on the immense good that our taxes do to not only those in real need but all of us who benefit from health care and better schools for our children. After all, we are supposed to be a charitable people. We need to alter our mind-set and start to think of taxation not in conjunction with death, but with life itself.