Last month I had the pleasure of reading the first volume of Washington Irving’s five volume biography of George Washington. As it is the life of the father of our country, written by one of the United States’ first great men of literature, it necessarily recommends itself to anyone who wishes to understand the American character. Above and beyond that, it is a detailed, colorful, and eloquent work, full of energy and humor, written in a much more congenial style than that typically employed by staid and clinical modern biographers.
There are a two points of emphasis in Irving’s work which I would like to briefly discuss.
The first is the voluntary and principled nature of our Revolution, and Washington’s participation in it. The Founding Fathers were not constrained by physical necessity to rebel against the English crown. Nor was it out of anti-English or anti-Monarchist sentiment. Over and over, Irving repeats, and presents evidence, that the American people considered themselves members of the British nation, and obedient servants of the crown. Washington himself expresses several times in his writings his dedication to the service of his sovereign. However, more than brotherly feeling, and more than obedience to an individual, they valued their rights before the law. The taxations and regulations imposed by the English were not overly oppressive economically – they were not causing ruin and starvation. In many cases they were practically negligible. But they were a violation of our forefathers’ rights, and that is why they were intolerable. Washington and his fellow revolutionaries, many of whom could have lived lives of peace and plenty to the end of their days, voluntarily severed their bond with the English throne, and risked their lives and property, on a matter of principle.
Secondly, I would like to bring attention to a particular sentence employed by Irving, which is revealing of his attitude, and that of his contemporaries, to the United States’ character and destiny. Writing of Washington, Patrick Henry, and Edmund Pendleton riding to Philadelphia to join the General Congress, Irving says “Such were the apostles of liberty, repairing on their august pilgrimage to Philadelphia from all parts of the land, to lay the foundations of a mighty empire.” What are the implications of such language? First, that the United States has a sacred destiny – Washington et al are apostles on pilgrimage, the messengers of God. Second, that the United States is no humble, local, self-contained nation of small farmers and shopkeepers – it is a mighty empire! Let any who would claim that radical isolationism and localism is the traditional American policy take note. Right from the beginning, but a generation after the Revolution, it has been a very strong current in American thought that our nation has a special and sacred destiny as a player – perhaps the foremost player – on the world stage. Whether or not we agree with such an attitude, we cannot accuse it of being an innovation.