Reputation

Colonial Virginia valued real estate as much as family bloodlines, or polite manners and form. Land determined one’s social position in the Tidewater and vast estates were controlled by the very few; an aristocracy that shaped Chesapeake society. 

George Washington came of age in this exacting culture, and naturally yearned for acreage to set his mark as a gentleman, fueling his earliest ambitions.

This zeal for land had crossed the Atlantic in the first ships from Great Britain. In the British Isles only gentlemen of the highest status possessed “parks” where they and their guests could hunt, and fish, with acreage left over for tenancy. Landed Cavaliers in the Tidewater quickly fancied themselves equal to any landed gentleman residing in Kent or Sussex. A cursory reading of Jefferson’s Declaration illustrates this sentiment. The “All Men Are Created Equal,” passage in the document affirms Jefferson’s opinion regarding an equality of station. 

Washington’s older, half-brother, Lawrence, the heir of their deceased father’s estate, tried to help the twenty-year-old find his way. Lawrence first looked to secure George a commission in the Royal Navy, but Mary Ball, George’s widowed mother refused to permit it. With no money for young Washington to pursue a formal education, he settled on a career as a surveyor. 

Making use of his father’s instruments, and with  aid of Lord Fairfax, his neighbor and patron, George received an appointment in the Virginia Militia, then trekked into the wilds with his party of frontiersmen to the Ohio River Valley asserting Virginia’s land claims. 

The year was 1754 and a historic wilderness clash awaited the young surveyor.

Virginia claimed virtually all territories north by northwest of the colony. At the same time the French had staked claim to the entire region, as well. An initial engagement at the Great Meadows had gone wrong, when Native allies of Washington’s attacked a sleeping party of French soldiers. In the melee, Half King, a Catawba leader, killed a French diplomatic courier, which was, and still is, an international no-no. 

French soldiers at Fort Duquesne struck at once.

As the French pressed down on Washington’s party, the young militia officer made a some bad decisions. In the ensuing “Battle of Fort Necessity,” Washington was easily whipped and forced to surrender when his hastily erected stockade filled with rain, making defense impossible. 

Thoroughly humiliated, Washington surrendered to the French on July 4, 1754. In his capitulation, young George unknowingly admitted he murdered the French diplomat. Lacking a gentleman’s education, which included an understanding of the French language, he didn’t realize what he had signed.

His disgrace was complete. 

Fast forward to 1794 and a return to the site of old Fort Duquesne. 

Much for Washington had changed. As Commanding General, Washington had won the Revolutionary War, and been elected the first President of the United States. For the nation Washington was fully redeemed through his leadership and valor. 

Still, for the man himself, the misadventures from forty years earlier still rankled. Though Washington’s name was universally lauded, nods and winks continued to echo about his pivotal role in starting the French and Indian War. 

The scene of Washington’s earlier bumbling had changed, as well.

The French Fort, Duquesne, had been renamed Fort Pitt, after the English Primes Minister who had made victory possible over the French. After the Revolution the growing town was simply called Pittsburgh. 

And it was in the proximity of Pittsburgh that a new challenge to Washington emerged.

Congress has passed an excise bill on distillers of whiskey. The infant federal government was burdened with debt from the Revolution. Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had proposed the tax as a way to for the Treasury to settle its financial obligations. But distillers out near Pittsburgh stubbornly refused to pay the tax. Whiskey rebels rose up, attacking tax collectors who attempted to do their jobs. By summer of 1794, one collector had been tarred and feathered, and another was burned out of his home by a violent mob.

President Washington wasn’t having any of this defiance. He raised an army, placed Hamilton at the head, and sent them to the site of his earlier disgrace .

The rebels melted away like snow in April, bringing this challenge to federal authority to a speedy close. 

Washington flexed federal power in what was the Constitution’s real first challenge. That Washington may have felt some sense of personal absolution, considering the location, is understandable.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both available on Kindle.

Peer Review #2

Strutting through the broad, reflecting doors, beneath the black and gold insignia of his building, the President acknowledged well wishers, reporters, and staff. Happy to be back in New York, he looked forward to his familiar apartment and comfortable bed. The President felt it a hardship to live in such an old structure in Washington, though the prestige made it tolerable.

He aimed directly to the elevator, his closest aids and Secret Service agents in tow. The Chief Executive marched into the lift, with a triumphant gait, gracing photographers with a last thumbs up, as the gilt doors sealed.

Soon enough, the elevator car slowed to a silent halt, the opening doors revealing an opulent penthouse. His entourage emptied first into the golden rooms, Secret Service staff sweeping for any dangers that might threaten the Commander in Chief. After the officers cleared the master bedroom, the President loosened his tie, slipped off his suit jacket and kicked off his designer shoes. Exhaling onto his grand bed, a sudden movement caught his eye.  

A tall man, of regal bearing stood by the window, surveying Midtown from on high. Attired in a blue uniform, trimmed with buff lapels and cuffs, the man’s hair looked powdery white, and was bound in a queue at the nape of his neck. 

Stunned, gasping at this extraordinary vision, the President froze, too astonished and frightened to speak.

“I’m very fond of New York,” the officer began. “During the War for Independence I remained in the vicinity waiting to reclaim it from British occupiers.” He glanced at the frightened man, now burrowing under his bedclothes. “As Chief Executive, I served both terms of office here in New York.”

The President could hear his heart pounding, and idly worried about his blood pressure.

“I, too, struggled with temptation,” the officer continued. In my youth I pined for the advantages of the wealth that surrounded me.” The apparition glanced at the President. “Land, military rank, social standing, . . . these were the empty ambitions I embraced as valuable.”

The President began to feel his heart rate slow, the adrenaline somewhat dissipating, and found the courage to speak. “Ho, . . . how did you get in here?” 

But the soldier did not reply, turning again toward the view of Manhattan. 

“Over time, particularly once the war commenced, I discovered my assumptions slowly crumbling. The sacrifices endured by the fine men in my command taught me that there were more important ideals than fleeting treasure,” the specter sighed, emotion enforcing his revelation. “You must realize,” the officer turned again toward the President, eyes blazing with conviction, “all a man truly possesses is reputation. In the end, that is all that matters!” 

Dread again filled the President, clutching tightly his golden comforter, but finding no comfort. He wished the apparition gone, praying with all his might that a staffer would hear and rescue him.

“You must understand,” the visitor continued, “I, too, struggled to master my avarice and envy. It was through a determined practice of self-restraint, a mastering of my baser desires, that I learned to be of service to more than myself.” The soldier paused a moment, studying the frightened man grasping his bedding. “Did you know that Article Two in the Constitution was written for me?” 

Hearing this, the President forgot his fear for a moment. 

“For you?” he managed to murmur. 

“When I relinquished my command after the war, and returned to my home in Virginia, Congress judged my character upright. In truth I was weary, lonely for my family, and yearning for a peaceful life,” the General smiled sadly. “However, when I gave up power I earned honor, trust—a good name—and contentment.”

“Why are you bothering me? You should leave,” the President moaned, wishing he had flown instead to Florida. But his visitor seemed not to hear. 

“When the Constitutional Convention set to work, only one day was devoted to defining the role of president. One day,” the visitor repeated. “You see, the delegates wanted no more of arbitrary rule, believing only those of good character would occupy the office.” The apparition looked directly at the President,”

“Please go,” the President whimpered. “I’ll call my men . . .”

The General interrupted, “they are not yours, Sir. And therein lies the problem, and the purpose of my visit.” The soldier frowned deeply. “These deputies work for the American people, as do you, sir. The presidency is a position of service and trust.” He paused. “We have all noted your general deficiency in this aspect.”

“We all?” gasped the President, concerned with his pumping heart.

The General approached the vast bed, the President shrinking deeper with each step. “The President is entrusted with formidable powers, that must not be mishandled. In this you have fallen short.”

“As I am remembered in the annals of America for quiet dignity and fidelity to country, you will only be recalled as a moneychanger who profited from foreigners and plutocrats.”

A knock at the bedroom door startled the cocooned President, breaking the spell. His elaborate, golden bedroom was empty.

Gail Chumbley is the author of the two-part memoir, “River of January,” and “River of January: Figure Eight.” Both are available on Kindle or in hardcopy at http://www.river-of-january.com.