April 19, 2015

Why George Washington Was a Great Man

A degree of silence envelops Washington’s actions; he moved slowly; one might say that he felt charged with future liberty, and that he feared to compromise it. It was not his own destiny that inspired this new species of hero: it was that of his country; he did not allow himself to enjoy what did not belong to him; but from that profound humility what glory emerged! Search the woods where Washington’s sword gleamed: what do you find? Tombs? No; a world! Washington has left the United States behind for a monument on the field of battle.
Bonaparte shared no trait with that serious American: he fought amidst thunder in an old world; he thought about nothing but creating his own fame; he was inspired only by his own fate. He seemed to know that his project would be short, that the torrent which falls from such heights flows swiftly; he hastened to enjoy and abuse his glory, like fleeting youth. Following the example of Homer’s gods, in four paces he reached the ends of the world. He appeared on every shore; he wrote his name hurriedly in the annals of every people; he threw royal crowns to his family and his generals; he hurried through his monuments, his laws, his victories. Leaning over the world, with one hand he deposed kings, with the other he pulled down the giant, Revolution; but, in eliminating anarchy, he stifled liberty, and ended by losing his own on his last field of battle.
Each was rewarded according to his efforts: Washington brings a nation to independence; a justice at peace, he falls asleep beneath his own roof in the midst of his compatriots’ grief and the veneration of nations.
Bonaparte robs a nation of its independence: deposed as emperor, he is sent into exile, where the world’s anxiety still does not think him safely enough imprisoned, guarded by the Ocean. He dies: the news proclaimed on the door of the palace in front of which the conqueror had announced so many funerals, neither detains nor astonishes the passer-by: what have the citizens to mourn?
Washington’s Republic lives on; Bonaparte’s empire is destroyed. Washington and Bonaparte emerged from the womb of democracy: both of them born to liberty, the former remained faithful to her, the latter betrayed her.
Washington acted as the representative of the needs, the ideas, the enlightened men, the opinions of his age; he supported, not thwarted, the stirrings of intellect; he desired only what he had to desire, the very thing to which he had been called: from which derives the coherence and longevity of his work. That man who struck few blows because he kept things in proportion has merged his existence with that of his country: his glory is the heritage of civilisation; his fame has risen like one of those public sanctuaries where a fecund and inexhaustible spring flows.

~ François-René de Chateubriand, Memoirs from Beyond the Grave, 1848 – 1850

I love this quote almost as much as I love and admire both Chateubriand and President Washington.

Arnold Friberg, The Prayer at Valley Forge (1975)


  1. Bonaparte took on too much and went too far. Moscow was too far. His army also went too far in Spain, in a sacrilegious way, on the wave of stupid, French revolutionary values. But he was a great man too, in his own way. Without him France would have continued to destroy herself and flounder in the bloody mire of its Revolution. The nation would have been incapable of reconciliation, and of establishing its essential institutions without the energy and determination of Bonaparte. The division created by the monster of the Revolution would have been irremediably.
    Bonaparte was feared by European nations because of his qualities, especially his capacity to inspire the many people (and not only the French) who believed in him.
    Bonaparte was defeated by his own ego. He failed because he tried to take on too much. If you loose, then history will record you as being wrong. But his positive influence, and many of his accomplishments were right. He wasn't a tyrant.
    Couldn't one say that if the birth of the USA depended on a Washington, the birth of European nations such as Germany and Italy formally made up of Baronies, small States and Republics (and by extension the birth of Europe) depended on a Napoleon? This even though the former was to be victorious and the latter was to be defeated.

  2. Good point! Thank you so much for posting your comment, Mirino. I couldn’t agree more with you: in his own way Bonaparte was a great man. But, as you puts it, he was defeated by his own ego. I’d like you to read “Il 5 maggio,” a poem on Napoleon by the great Italian poet and novelist Alessandro Manzoni. Here is a link to an English translation along with the original Italian text (you must click on the “two pages” icon icon at the top left of the page): http://bit.ly/1DSkL4i

    It’s an interesting and intelligent insight into the “career” of a man who changed the world.

  3. Thanks for the link Rob. Exalting and appropriate. Manzoni seems to have appreciated this particularly rare example of one of history's phenomena.