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Washington's war

Presidency | The father of our country fought against his impulses

Issue: "The Road to Cana," Feb. 23, 2008

Many pastors have noted the importance of seeing Jesus as fully God but also fully man, fully physical in every way-but some Christians still get embarrassed contemplating Christ as fully a baby and doing all the physical things that babies do. Their delicacy is theologically wrong but psychologically understandable.

We should give less slack to those who think of George Washington as a monument, perpetually frozen-faced as in Gilbert Stuart paintings. The danger of taking seriously the "I cannot tell a lie" fables about Washington's childhood is that we might deify him as sinless. But the "cannot" is also not fair to Washington, because the most impressive thing about him is that he had strong tendencies to sin, as do we all, but he fought them more successfully than most of us do.

George Washington, born on Feb. 22, 1732, could readily have become a rake. The 16-year-old Washington's friends saw him more as a potential womanizer than as a candidate for storybook sainthood. They called him the "stallion of the Potomac" and expected him to run wild. His mentor, Lord Fairfax, warned the young ladies of Virginia, "George Washington is beginning to feel the sap rising, being in the spring of life, and is getting ready to be the prey of your sex, wherefore may the Lord help him."

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The sap was rising, but Washington over the next decade worked hard on self-control. As a teenager he wrote a sonnet to one young lady, Frances Alexander, which read in part, "Why should my poor restless heart/ Stand to oppose thy might and power/ At last surrender to cupid's feathered dart." But when she did not surrender, he desisted. Later he courted Mary Eliza Philipse, whom he called "deep-bosomed." She rejected him.

Washington in his early 20s admired passionately a young married woman, Sally Fairfax, and wrote to her that she had drawn him, "or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a single fact": that she was "the object of my Love." If Washington's story were fiction, some British novelist would have had Mr. Fairfax die in a shipwreck. But in fact, he lived on, and Washington stopped his errant courtship by marrying the recently widowed Martha Custis.

Martha Custis (5 feet tall and plump) may have met George Washington (6 feet 2 inches and muscular, with size 13 shoes) at a dance or party during the eight years she was married to Daniel Parke Custis. She and George Washington had heard of each other for years, but their first substantial meeting came when he was 26, in 1758: She was eight months a widow and he had been tempted to go too far with Sally Fairfax. He proposed to her nine days later.

Their marriage lasted 41 years, until death did them part. Martha had a 4-year-son and 2-year-old daughter from her previous marriage, but George had no children with her. (They did have lots of dogs, with names like Drunkard, Sweetlips, and Truelove.) George Washington may have been sterile, and therefore ready to be the father of a republican country rather than a hereditary monarchy. Other men who did not have offspring (even when the likely physical cause lay within themselves) traded in wives for those they thought could do better. Washington did not.

Washington became known not for being passionless but for refusing to give in to his passions. A printed cotton kerchief from the era praised his "self-command and self-denial." In 1775 he began building an army by demanding the same from his soldiers. At a time when army camps were homes for blasphemy, Washington decried the "foolish, and wicked practice, of profane cursing and swearing." He insisted, "We can have little hopes of the blessing of Heaven on our arms, if we insult it by our impiety and folly."

Washington demanded the appointment of regimental chaplains and commanded his soldiers to "attend carefully upon religious exercises. The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary but especially so in times of public distress and danger." Some observers said Washington would lose men by insisting on tough standards, but he understood that the opposite was true. The task of British officers was to make their men compliant. The task of American officers was to show volunteers that the patriotic effort was virtually a holy cause. Only the totally committed could be relied on.

In practice, godly discipline won victories. For example, Washington had his men cross the Delaware River into New Jersey on Christmas Eve 1776 during a storm that the British thought would stop even the best soldiers. Johann Rall, commander of the mercenary Hessian force encamped at Trenton, saw no reason to fortify his garrison or emphasize outposts. When a Tory farmer delivered to Rall a note saying the American army was about to attack him, Rall was intent on his card game and merely slipped the note into his pocket. The next morning Washington's forces routed Rall's men.

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