The Americanism of Washington

Henry van Dyke
Americanism of Washington, by
Henry Van Dyke

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Title: The Americanism of Washington
Author: Henry Van Dyke
Release Date: February 20, 2004 [EBook #11192]
Language: English
Character set encoding: ISO-8859-1

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Henry van Dyke
Hard is the task of the man who at this late day attempts to say
anything new about Washington. But perhaps it may be possible to
unsay some of the things which have been said, and which, though they
were at one time new, have never at any time been strictly true.
The character of Washington, emerging splendid from the dust and
tumult of those great conflicts in which he played the leading part, has
passed successively into three media of obscuration, from each of
which his figure, like the sun shining through vapors, has received
some disguise of shape and color. First came the mist of mythology, in
which we discerned the new St. George, serene, impeccable, moving
through an orchard of ever-blooming cherry-trees, gracefully
vanquishing dragons with a touch, and shedding fragrance and radiance
around him. Out of that mythological mist we groped our way, to find
ourselves beneath the rolling clouds of oratory, above which the head
of the hero was pinnacled in remote grandeur, like a sphinx poised
upon a volcanic peak, isolated and mysterious. That altitudinous figure
still dominates the cloudy landscapes of the after-dinner orator; but the
frigid, academic mind has turned away from it, and looking through the
fog of criticism has descried another Washington, not really an
American, not amazingly a hero, but a very decent English country
gentleman, honorable, courageous, good, shrewd, slow, and above all
immensely lucky.
Now here are two of the things often said about Washington which
need, if I mistake not, to be unsaid: first, that he was a solitary and
inexplicable phenomenon of greatness; and second, that he was not an

Solitude, indeed, is the last quality that an intelligent student of his
career would ascribe to him. Dignified and reserved he was,
undoubtedly; and as this manner was natural to him, he won more true
friends by using it than if he had disguised himself in a forced
familiarity and worn his heart upon his sleeve. But from first to last he
was a man who did his work in the bonds of companionship, who
trusted his comrades in the great enterprise even though they were not
his intimates, and who neither sought nor occupied a lonely eminence
of unshared glory. He was not of the jealous race of those who
"Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne";
nor of the temper of George III., who chose his ministers for their
vacuous compliancy. Washington was surrounded by men of similar
though not of equal strength--Franklin, Hamilton, Knox, Greene, the
Adamses, Jefferson, Madison. He stands in history not as a lonely
pinnacle like Mount Shasta, elevated above the plain
"By drastic lift of pent volcanic fires";
but as the central summit of a mountain range, with all his noble
fellowship of kindred peaks about him, enhancing his unquestioned
supremacy by their glorious neighborhood and their great support.
Among these men whose union in purpose and action made the
strength and stability of the republic, Washington was first, not only in
the largeness of his nature, the loftiness of his desires, and the vigor of
his will, but also in that representative quality which makes a man able
to stand as the true hero of a great people. He had an instinctive power
to divine, amid the confusions of rival interests and the cries of
factional strife, the new aims and hopes, the vital needs and aspirations,
which were the common inspiration of the people's cause and the
creative forces of the American nation. The power to understand this,
the faith to believe in it, and the unselfish courage to live for it, was the
central factor of Washington's life, the heart and fountain of his
splendid Americanism.
It was denied during his lifetime, for a little while, by those who envied

his greatness, resented his leadership, and sought to shake him from his
lofty place. But he stood serene and imperturbable, while that denial,
like many another blast of evil-scented wind, passed into nothingness,
even before the disappearance of the party strife out of whose
fermentation it had arisen.
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