Channelling George Washington: The General and Patrick Henry


Mr. Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians. This is the latest in a series of articles, "Channelling George Washington."

“Well, I did it.  I did what Martha insisted I HAD to do.  I invited Tom Jefferson and Jemmy Madison over for a glass of ambrosia and hoped there were no hard feelings about our little dustup.”

General Washington’s voice was so somber, he might have been mourning a dead friend.  “How did they take it, General?”

“Oh, Jemmy was fine.  I knew he would be.  He sees himself as a sort of peace ambassador between us.  After all, he never would have gotten noticed, much less hailed, for his great Constitution without my backing.  He often reminds Tom of my role in the matter.  But that didn’t cut much ice when we got together.  Tom just stared into his ambrosia and then asked me what vintage it was.  I’m sure he’s got an earlier one, brewed by old Adam himself, in his cellar.”

“There are times in my study of him when I wondered if Mr. Jefferson disliked the Constitution.”

“Of course he disliked it. He was over there in France, talking abstractions to future Jacobins when we sweated through those dog days in Philadelphia putting the thing together.  The mere word Constitution put his nose out of joint from the start.  Because he didn’t have a starring role.”

 “He may have a point, General.  Constitution worship can get out of hand.”

“I agree completely.  There’s always a middle ground on such matters.  But I hope you’re not going to tell me the Earth belongs to the living and the current generation can just dismiss the past.”

“I wouldn’t be an historian if I believed that.”

“Jemmy rescued things when he started reminiscing about the day he duked it out with Patrick Henry in the Virginia ratifying convention.  Tom hasn’t got a good word to say about old Pat, because he was behind the motion to investigate and condemn Tom’s governorship in 1781.  I enjoyed it because it was a great moment in American history.  Pat talked for three whole days, damning the Constitution seven ways from Sunday in that marvelous organ voice of his.  He hit every diapason on the oratorical scale.  Then Jemmy stood up and answered him in his whispery voice.”

“Did he have his notes in his hat?”

“That’s what I’ve been told. I wasn’t there.  Pat was so worked up, he would’ve even attacked me.  I thought it was better to be a presence in the near distance.  Everyone knew I was for it.”

“Jemmy demolished him?”

“Step by step, with logic and facts, and more logic and more facts. It was a fantastic performance.”

“But the vote was still mighty close, wasn’t it?”

“Much too close for my comfort—89 to 79.  If five or six votes had gone the other way, the Constitution would have been dead on arrival.  They couldn’t organize a government without Virginia—the biggest state.”

“What was Henry’s main objection?”

“The same objection Tom J. has had to my presidency.  The federal government was too powerful.  It was certain to be the seedbed of tyranny.  Pat was very bitter about his defeat.  I tried to make amends by asking him to be secretary of state in 1795 but he turned me down.”

“Didn’t he change his mind in the next few years?”

“When the Jacobins started slaughtering people in France, Pat had second thoughts.  Our strong but moderate federal government started looking better and better.  Then Tom Jefferson launched his Kentucky Resolutions into the atmosphere in 1798, declaring a state had the right to nullify any federal law it didn’t like.  That turned Pat into a Federalist.  He ran for the Virginia legislature on our ticket and won.  He was planning to introduce a resolution damning Tom and all his works, but he died of stomach cancer before he got a chance to say a word.”

“You sound like you sort of like Patrick Henry, General.”

“He was the right man in the right place in 1774-76.  The people needed a wake-up call.  His greatest moment was in the first Constitutional Convention, when he said it was time to stop thinking of ourselves as Virginians and New Yorkers and Carolinians.  We were all Americans.”

“Henry also backed you in that political brawl that erupted while you were at Valley Forge, didn’t he?”

“He sure did.  That two faced self-styled True Whig [for 2010 readers, left-wing liberal] Dr. Benjamin Rush, who never missed a chance to ooze flattery and friendship when he got close to me, sent Henry an anonymous letter urging him to throw Virginia into the movement to dump General Washington in favor of Horatio Gates, the supposed victor at the battles of Saratoga.”

“Was Rush part of a widespread conspiracy to get rid of you, General?”

“YES!  Pay no attention to those birdbrain historians who say there was no conspiracy and I was mainly guilty of a bruised ego because some sincere patriots had dared to criticize me!”

“Henry forwarded Rush’s letter to you?”

“He didn’t recognize the coward’s handwriting.  I did, of course, at first glance.  Benny was always bombarding me with advice.  He fancied himself a statesman as well as a medical genius.  He was neither. His favorite remedy was bleeding people.  I’ve since been told by top docs like Charles Mayo, founder of the famous clinic, that Benny thought there were two or four quarts of blood in the human body when there was only half that amount.  As a result, he literally bled hundreds of people to death!”

“Rush’s letter was a wake up call?  It made you realize there was an organized conspiracy to get rid of you?”

“You could say that.  By the end of the Valley Forge winter, I made sure that Benny and his pal Tom Mifflin, another two faced double talker, were political toast.”

“Your toasting of former Quartermaster General Mifflin was especially exquisite, General.”

“I liked it because no one so much as glimpsed my fine Italian hand, as the saying used to go.  Good old Henry Laurens, the president of the Continental Congress, suddenly accused Mifflin of massive malfeasance while he was quartermaster general.”

The fact that Henry’s son, John Laurens, was one of your aides had nothing do with this, General?”

“Of course not.  For the next two years, Mifflin lurked around the edges of Congress demanding an investigation to clear his name.  Somehow Congress never got around to it!”

“You disposed of Gates almost as thoroughly, General.” 

“Lafayette was my agent of choice there.  Congress had made Horatio head of the Board of War, which theoretically entitled him to do what he pleased without even mentioning it to me.  The Marquis agreed to take command of Gates’ brainchild, an invasion of Canada in the dead of winter.  At a dinner celebrating his appointment, the Marquis offered a toast to General Washington—something everyone had the table had failed to do.  Then he told Horatio he was going to send all his reports to me, the commander-in-chief. The expedition turned out to be a fiasco, as I was sure it would be.  The Marquis’s outraged letters to me and to Congress turned Horatio’s reputation into the political equivalent of MUSH.”

“Now I begin to see why some people feared you might become a dictator, General.”

“What do you mean by THAT?”
“You had the talent for it, if you were so inclined.”

“You may have a point.  But I was NEVER inclined.  When I resigned my commission as lieutenant general in 1783, Congress’s reputation had sunk to an unparalleled low point.  I remember standing there in the well of the Maryland legislature, looking at these political zeros—one of them was Tom Jefferson, incidentally—and asking myself what I owed them.  The answer was NOTHING.  They were bankrupt and they had sent my officers and men home without paying them a cent of the millions of dollars they’d promised them.  Like most legislatures, their word meant nothing.  It was the imperial Congress in embryo there in front of my eyes, without a president to interpose a veto.”

“Were you tempted to do an Oliver Cromwell, General?”

“I won’t say tempted. But I suddenly understood why Oliver had told the politicians to take a walk.  Then I thought:  Wait a minute.  We fought this war to create a free people.  Chasing these birdbrains into the street was not a way to do that.  I took a deep breath and decided to bet on faith I probably got from Martha that God was somehow mixed up in this mess.  So I resigned and went home to Mount Vernon, hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.”

“I think that’s the greatest moment in American history, General.”

“It didn’t feel that way at the time.  I spent the next three years wondering if I’d made a terrible mistake.”

“Tom Jefferson paid you a large compliment for your forbearance, General.”

“Really?  What did he say?”

“The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”

“When did Tom say that?”

“In 1784, not long after you resigned.”

“I can see you’ve been talking to Martha.  She hinted she’d been channeling you.  She’s wrapped you around her little finger even faster than she’s wrapped me.  Southern charm!  Sometimes I think they invented the term to describe her.”

“I’ve always been susceptible to Southern women, General.  It’s that wonderful accent.  The way the words slide around their meanings.  It’s a great tradition, all things considered.”      

“Okay, okay OKAY!  I agree with every word of that.”

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