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I'm Mike Pope. I live in the Seattle area. I've been a technical writer and editor for over 30 years. I'm interested in software, language, music, movies, books, motorcycles, travel, and ... well, lots of stuff.

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This process of digging up the details and learning how things work leads down many side streets and to many dead ends, but is fundamental (I think) to understanding something new. Many times in my books I have set out to write how something works, thinking I know how it works, only to write some test programs that lead me to things that I never knew. I try to convey some of these missteps in my books, as I think seeing the wrong solution to a problem (and understanding why it is wrong) is often as informative as seeing the correct solution.

W. Richard Stevens



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Blog Statistics

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First entry - 6/27/2003
Most recent entry - 12/9/2018

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Posts - 2537
Comments - 2589
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Updated every 30 minutes. Last: 5:31 PM Pacific


  11:16 AM

By some calendars, today's is George Washington's birthday[1]. Washington was commander-in-chief of the ultimately victorious Continental Army, the first president of the United States, the image on the dollar bill, the "Father of the Country."



The figure of Washington is so lost in the mists of myth that most people don't really know that much about him. Even in his own day, for the citizens of the new republic he had among the founding fathers an aura of being above the sublunary businesses of founding and running a country. Per Joseph Ellis:
Throughout the first half of the 1790s, the closest approximation to a self-evident truth in American politics was George Washington. A legend in his own time, Americans had been describing Washington as "the Father of the Country" since 1776--which is to say, before there was even a country.
Among the so-called founding fathers, Washington stands out in a kind of curious way. The Revolutionary era produced (and was the result of) a truly exceptional cadre of political thinkers -- Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton -- who had vast and insightful knowledge of Enlightenment philosophers of their own age, like Locke, and who were well acquainted with political history from the times of Athens, Rome, and beyond. Washington was of a different type. Gordon Wood explains:
In many respects, Washington was a very unlikely hero. To be sure, he had all the physical attributes of a classical hero. He was very tall by contemporary standards, six feet three or so, and was heavily built and a superb athlete. He was both a splendid horseman and an extraordinarily graceful dancer. He always moved with dignity and looked like a leader.

Yet those who knew him well and talked with him were often disappointed. He never seemed to have much to say. He was almost certainly not what we today would call an intellectual. Adams was contemptuous of Washington's intellectual abilities. "That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station and reputation is equally past dispute." Even Jefferson, who was usually generous with his estimates of his friends, said that Washington's "colloquial talents were not above mediocrity." He had "neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words."
Washington became president almost by proclamation, in an age before political parties and before campaigns. He was the obvious choice (Ellis: "No other candidate was even thinkable"), after having led the country in war, to (as they say) lead the country in peace. Americans of the time had no experience of democracy as we understand it today, and there was no precedent for any such office as president. Washington was aware that he was establishing the role of president for history, and it's been noted many times that in this regard, there was probably no better person among the possible candidates to have accomplished this task. Many people expected the executive to become a quasi-king and fill the office for the remainder of his lifetime -- monarchial thinking was still the norm for many newly enfranchised citizens. But against many people's expectations and the wishes of many, Washington declared after his second term that he would give up the office. Ellis again: "No less an authority than George III allegedly observed, 'If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.'" But he did give it up and thereby established "the supreme example of the leader who could be trusted with power because he was so ready to give it up."

Washington is not the Father of the Country because he architected the Revolution or the formation of the country, like the rest of the founding fathers did. His role instead was as executive, both in prosecuting the war and in administering -- and thereby defining -- the presidency. Washington was a doer more than a thinker. But as Wood points out (the thesis of his book, really), Washington's real greatness was in the character that he exhibited while doing his part for the new country. More than any of the other fathers (possibly excepting Franklin), Washington's motives and actions are above reproach. He showed in his actions and in the writings that he did leave behind, pace Adams, that he strove as much as any of the founders to fulfill the ideals of the country that he helped to found.

Forget all that stuff about "I cannot tell a lie" (entirely invented) and consider the delicate roles that Washington fulfilled in his lifetime. It was by no means certain in the early days of this country how things would turn out. Had Washington not performed what he saw as his duties in the way that he did them, we would live in a very different USA today. If indeed the country had survived at all.

We do have ample reason to salute ol' dour-looking George today, no matter what the calendar tells us. Happy birthday to dear old dad, then.


[1] The day he was born, the local (British and Colonial) calendar said February 11.

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