George Washington And “the Guilty, Dangerous & Vulgar Honor”


The argument strayed into very strange channels. While most people were attacking the society as a nascent aristocracy, Elbridge Gerry feared demagogy. He used the society as an argument against popular election of a President: “The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men, dispersed through the Union and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment.” He observed that such a society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They were respectable, united, and influential. They would in fact elect the chief magistrate in every instance if the election were referred to the people. His respect for the characters composing this society could not blind him to the danger and impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.

Washington weighed these criticisms carefully. He asked Jefferson to put his objections to the society in writing. He read the Burke pamphlet and a translation of Mirabeau. Since none dared attack Washington directly, they tried to flatter him away from his followers: “Was it possible,” wrote Mirabeau, “he should not feel how much his name was superior to all distinction? The hero of the Revolution which broke the chains of half the world—was it possible that he should not scorn the guilty, dangerous, and vulgar honor of being the hero of a party?” Jefferson struck the same note, hoping that “the character which will be handed to future ages at the head of our Revolution may in no instance be compromitted by subordinate altercations.”

Still, veterans were anxious to join the society. Washington had been hailed around the world as the modern Cincinnatus when he resigned his commission at the end of the war. Any tie to him was welcomed. Desmoulins would suggest that French revolutionaries adopt a blue cockade to associate themselves with the first successful revolution of the modern world. The society’s medal was the only foreign order that could be worn at the French court. When, at first, French naval officers were not invited to join, they petitioned for admission. When this was granted, they sent Washington an eagle formed of diamonds and emeralds to express their gratitude.

Late in his life, Trumbull pointed at a wounded American sprawled behind the standing Hessian in his painting of Washington at Trenton and said, “But for that he would never have been President.” The young lieutenant with the wound was James Monroe. Trumbull exaggerated; but it was certainly no political liability to have served with Washington. There was a special glamor thrown, all the rest of their lives, around the men who rode with him.

Enemies of the Cincinnati had good reason to fear the awesome power Washington exerted over and through the Revolutionary officers—the men who would boast on their tombstones they were friends of Washington. He did forge a high level of military pride in an army endangered by rancorous divisions, interstate rivalries, and demoralizing recruitment procedures. The achievement of this spirit contributed significantly to the acceptance of the federal union. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick point out that the young men of the Revolution took the lead at the Constitutional Convention, men formed by experience in the Continental Army or the Continental Congresses. Edmund Randolph, arguing for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, said, “I am a child of the Revolution.” (Randolph felt a special affection for Washington, since the general had stood warrant for his patriotism when Randolph’s Tory father fled to England.)

“The hero of the Revolution which broke the chains of half the world …”

It is easy to forget how extraordinary was Washington’s achievement in creating this solidarity among officers bred to colonial prerogative and to the pride of local militias. When he first arrived at Boston, some camps would not even admit this stranger from the South. He had to win the respect of men who had every regional cause to resent him. So spectacularly did he succeed that service on his staff or in his guard became a highly desired prize.

We mistake the impact of Washington when we think of his peers as fellow “founders” like Franklin or Madison. He stood as clearly above them in the popular regard as he did above fellow officers like Gates or Putnam. His contemporaries very soon ranked him in stature (though not in character, where he was their superior) with the charismatic nation builders, with Alexander, Caesar, Cromwell. He differed from them—and later on, from Napoleon—by not overreaching himself. There would be no doomed romance of failure around him. He accomplished everything he set out to do, went home, and died prosaically in bed. He succeeded so well that he almost succeeds himself out of the hero business. He made his accomplishments look, in retrospect, almost inevitable. Heroism so quietly efficient dwindles to managerial skill.