August 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 5
Resigning his commission, the military hero joined Congress in acting out a strict protocol to symbolize the supremacy of civil government
It was my privilege some time ago to discuss the fundamentals of American government with President Eisenhower. The talk led to George Washington. Mr. Eisenhower said that, in his view, the great hour of Washington’s life came at Valley Forge where, militarily speaking, Washington achieved a miracle.
I doubt anyone will want to gainsay Mr. Eisenhower on a military opinion. On the other hand, civilians may turn their eyes on Washington’s civil career to see if they discern similar evidence of divine inspiration there.
I am quite satisfied on the subject. There were times when, acting to influence our nation’s future, Washington so divested himself of the ambitions common to men in his position as to take on the semblance of an instrument of Providence. He did this, for instance, when he resigned his commission.
It was just a year after the Revolution—December 33, 1783—and the nation was in a dangerous crisis. The war was won, but not the peace. The central authority was the Continental Congress, and it, for two reasons, was incapable of performing the acts of government. One of these reasons was a lack of executive power. The other was a monstrous indifference that extended through the mechanism of representative government, from top to bottom.
Some of the states simply did not bother to elect any representatives to the national legislature whatever, while a good many of the men who were elected did not bother to travel to the city where Congress met, and—worse—numbers of those who were elected and did go did not bother to attend the sessions.
The Continental Congress, in short, was without prestige. The place of its meeting, that memorable winter, was the capital of Maryland, Annapolis, and the very fact of being there was a reminder of a recent humiliation. For the preceding summer, meeting in Philadelphia, its members had had to flee the city for safety’s sake. A mob of mutinous soldiers, angry because their pay was late, had surrounded the congressional hall and threatened to come in and do violence if their demands were not satisfied. What Congress had done was simply to go away, with what dignity it could muster. It moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where it finished out the session. It then chose Annapolis for its next place of assembly.
When it arrived in the new meeting place, however, it continued to be plagued with the old indifference. Only nine states were represented, and two of these—New Hampshire and South Carolina—had to be discounted, as each had sent but one man. So it was actually a count of seven states out of thirteen that could be called present, and they only by reason of partial delegations. In all, just eighteen men were present.
Beside this distraction in the civil government, the prestige enjoyed by George Washington, the soldier, makes a striking contrast. At the time he was looked up to as a superman. He occupied a position, indeed, that has brought fatality to many free governments—he was the beloved Strong Man. He chose this time to visit Congress.
On December 4, in New York City, he had bidden his military family a professional and personal farewell. He had then set out for Annapolis, letting it be known that he intended to resign his commission—take his officiai farewell from public service—as soon as he reached Congress. But he had not yet done so. He was still the general in fact and he was the hero in popular estimation.
He had constant evidence of the latter condition as he went along. In the three cities through which he passed—Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore—he was received with town-wide celebration. To the official welcomes, moreover, there was added a frenzy of popular acclaim. How many men, seeing a nation thus at their feet, have put principle above ambition? It has happened again and again in history that a liberator has fallen into temptation —and ended as a tyrant. It could have happened to us, had God not vouchsafed us George Washington.
The triumphal quality of his journey came to a climax as he approached Annapolis. He was met outside the city by a welcoming committee of distinguished civil and military officers. Thirteen cannon were discharged in salute as he entered the town. He was in a position to hold a veritable court—but he took no advantage of the fact. Instead, early the next day, he made it his first act to pay dutiful respect to the president of the Congress.
A personal shading enters in here, that throws Washington’s invincible correctness into wonderful relief. For it happened that the president was Thomas Mifflin, a former general of Washington’s staff who had not rated high in Washington’s estimation. Washington, indeed, had felt he had reason to suspect Mifflin’s loyalty to himself. But Mifflin was now the civil head of the nation Washington served, and Washington unhesitatingly paid him deference.
The same day, December so, he sent a letter to Congress, asking permission to resign, and—still with his awe-inspiring correctness—requesting that he be notified as to the manner in which Congress wished to receive the resignation —in writing or by audience. Congress, the meantime, had been making its preparation. It had appointed Thomas Jefferson, Elbridge Gerry, and James McHenry a committee to arrange the resignation ceremony.
These gentlemen established the .protocol. It would seem to speak for itself. They advised Washington that he would be accorded a public audience and set the time for noon, December 23. He was to come accompanied by two aides. On entering the hall, he would be shown to a seat, but his aides should remain standing. He should wait until the president of the Congress gave him leave to speak. At the close of his address, he should return his commission to the president and hear the president’s reply. Thus went the stipulations for the routine of the ceremony. Added was a provision for the spirit.
This stated that, until the resignation was finished, the members of Congress would remain seated and would keep their hats on. They would not rise in honor of General Washington, nor would they spontaneously give him the courtesy of bared heads. On the contrary, he was to bow to Congress, when he rose to make his address, and again when he ended, and the members—such is the curious specification of the protocol—were to acknowledge his obeisances only by briefly lifting their hats. They were not to bow. They were not even to stand up.
Today, even keeping in mind the punctilio of the Eighteenth Century, anyone will feel that Congress’ emphasis on its own dignity had a defensive quality. What Congress had forgotten was that George Washington, more than any one man in the country, was responsible for representative government.
He had three days to wait after he received these stipulations. They were filled with tribute. He received visits from all the distinguished people of the countryside. He was honored by a great public banquet and a brilliant state ball. One act of his stands out significantly from this excitement of acclaim. It came at the banquet on the twenty-second. Thirteen toasts had been drunk, each to the discharge of cannon. The last was to Washington himself. He capped it. He offered, “Competent Powers to Congress for General Purposes.”
The next day he came to the State House—to resign. The ceremony took place in the room now known as the Old Senate Chamber. There were as many visitors present as the space could accommodate. The names, combined with those of the congressmen, make a virtual roster of our early history. There were Maryland’s four signers of the Declaration—Charles Carroll, Samuel Chase, Thomas Stone, William Paca. There were two future Presidents, besides Washington himself—Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. There were four Revolutionary generals—Horatio Gates, Arthur St. Clair, William Smallwood, and Thomas Mifflin. There were future Cabinet members—as Elbridge Gerry and McHenry.
Before the eyes of all these servants of our country, George Washington, the first man of the land, played out the servant’s part. At every point he conformed to the rules laid down by Congress, whose members were keeping their hats on in his presence. Only at the last, when he “drew out from his bosom” his commission, and placed the document in Thomas Mifflin’s hands, did he introduce any element not in the instructions. At that second his memories overcame him, and tears coursed down his cheeks. Then Washington once again bowed, and Congress uncovered. By that time, many of the audience were weeping too.
Today, the room where this drama occurred is kept by the state of Maryland as a virtual shrine. My duties as governor of Maryland take me past the door, and sometimes I stop. In that still and beautiful chamber, the presences seem always to live. And, as I see them in my mind, the moment is always the same—the one in which Washington bowed. As a civil officer of the American government, I shall always think that was his greatest hour.
Once the record has been brought up to date, the biographer commonly rounds off his work with the nominating speech delivered in the convention and the candidate’s speech of acceptance. Then, for a final section of all-out encomium, which makes the preceding material look niggardly, there is a conclusion whose title may be anything from “The Candidate at Home” to “General Remarks” or “His Character.” Here is the place to explain away any slight oddities, such as membership in a small or unusual sect whose tenets need full and favorable explication.
The candidate is naturally always religious but, even though General Harrison was once discovered praying “when he could not have supposed that any eye save that of God was resting on him,” over the years it has seemingly been thought less and less appropriate to stress piety. Church affiliation is expected, but freedom from church dictates is always emphasized for fear that voters may think a particular denomination will influence the candidate’s ideas.
By and large, however, no tribute is too great and no analogy too fantastic for the conclusion. For it the linotypist, or the hand printer before him, could keep conveniently set such words as: pure, noble, generous, brave, humane, upright, practical, intrepid, affable, independent, prudent, industrious, frank, honest, quick, authoritative, vigorous, and amiable. These are a few of the adjectives that pepper and salt the campaign biography as often as the hackneyed phrases: a man of the people, humble before God, a warrior and a friend of peace.
To prove these points we are given little vignettes: Harrison at the dinner table, which “instead of being covered with exciting wines, is well supplied with the best cider”; or General Taylor, who “hardly ever appears in full dress, preferring a linen roundabout, cotton pantaloons, a straw hat.” Sometimes a writer faced by a frosty candidate has a hard time of it, like the one who could do no better than to praise McKinley for possessing “natural dignity,” because “no one ever slapped him on the back without finding that it was not an agreeable act.” In the tradition of making the best of his subject, the biographer goes on to compliment McKinley for his “cleanliness” because “his shoes are always polished,” and discovers skill in the fact that “he shaves himself … never cuts himself … shaves very close … and can carry on a conversation while cutting off his beard.”
The conventions of the campaign biography include not only the revelation of virtues, likely and unlikely, but the discovery of relationships, substantial and tenuous, to preceding Presidents and other great men. Thus it is that Harrison is not only called “the Washington of the West” but is lauded for having taken part in the Indian wars at just the age Lafayette was when he joined the Revolution. A mark of distinction for Frémont is found in the fact that his maternal great-grandfather held the infant George Washington at his baptism. Coolidge apparently enjoyed more analogies to past Presidents than most candidates, or at least his biographers unearthed more. Not only was he reared by a stepmother, as was Lincoln, but he dropped his first name and used his former middle name, like Cleveland and Wilson before him. As if these were not enough marks of glory, Coolidge was born on July 4, was elected to the vice presidency when aged 48—one year for each star of the flag—and he would be 52 at the time of the presidential election, the exact age at which Lincoln was inaugurated.
Candidates with a paucity of resemblances to past heroes are praised for being first in their own way. Voters are told that Harding, if elected, would be the first son of a Civil War veteran to become President, and also the first chief executive to have a father still leading an active business life, two qualifications perhaps meant to offset his failure to possess a widowed mother. Occasionally a biographer must do what he can for a candidate neither unique nor like previous heroes. Thus Thomas Dewey’s five feet, eight inches of height were lauded because they made his stature “almost precisely the same as the average of the men in the armed forces.”
There is a striking sameness in the campaign biographies that have appeared during the last 130 years, yet not all of them were produced by imitative hack writers or partisan journalists. Some of these books are the work of America’s most distinguished authors. First in this line stands Hawthorne, who wrote the life of his old college friend Franklin Pierce, and for it received not only $300 in royalties but a consulship at Liverpool. The next most celebrated campaign biographer is William Dean Howells, who as a young journalist wrote one of the first biographies of Abraham Lincoln, without putting himself to the bother of visiting his subject. For this work he too received a consulship, this one at Venice during the Civil War.
As a mature man Howells helped to elect another President, when in four weeks he turned out the biography of his wife’s cousin, Rutherford B. Hayes. Other notable writers include Whittier, who anonymously wrote a substantial part of the life of Clay signed by the Kentucky journalist, George D. Prentice; Kipling’s brother-in-law and collaborator, Wolcott Balestier, who during “the early morning hours of a fortnight” wrote the biography of Blaine; and Lew Wallace, the popular author of Ben Hur, who turned his hand to a work on Benjamin Harrison.
Even the best of the authors had competition from other biographers, for during a campaign a candidate had almost as many lives as a cat. Sometimes party managers attempt to give each book its own special appeal, so that, by agreement, Hawthorne’s life of Pierce was described as “authorized,” while David W. Bartlett’s similar work was billed as “authentic,” leaving the author of The Scarlet Letter in an equivocal position. Occasionally one writer carps at another even more than he does at an opposing candidate, as when a biographer of William Henry Harrison mentions the source he has plagiarized as a work “hastily compiled … trite and declamatory.” But with Harrison evidently this sort of fighting for one’s own life was necessary, since he was the most written about of all candidates, with thirty different biographies available to the public during the 1840 campaign.
Whenever several biographies of the same candidate are in competition, publishers attempt to make them different in appearance, if not in manner of treatment. Some of the lives are formal, full-dress affairs, such as a two-volume work of Clay, and the elegantly bound, so-called “library edition” of Lew Wallace’s Harrison ; some of them are odd in appearance, like the biography of Theodore Roosevelt that is less than two inches square; but most of them are issued in the format of a popular novel and at a comparable price.
In the Nineteenth Century, many publications were no more than sleazy paper-backed pamphlets. A 26-page booklet on Clay was sold at three cents a copy or $15 for a thousand by local Whig headquarters, and the large majority of such works was given away to potential voters. To make sure that all could read them, these books were frequently translated into other languages, of which German was the most common, though Lincoln’s life was also once told in Welsh for Pennsylvania coal miners.
Campaign biographies often get most of their circulation from the free distribution of the sponsoring party but many have large, though short-lived, sales. The life of Frémont that sold nearly 50,000 copies was not unusual, even though that number approached the circulation of Hiawatha, the previous year’s best seller in belles-lettres. Nor was it unusual when the publisher slashed his original price of 75 cents when Frémont’s chances began to look slim as the campaign wore on. But Truman’s biographer in 1948 probably has the dubious distinction of being the only one to have his book remaindered on the day his candidate was elected.
Although the campaign biography is generally but a hastily and poorly written bundle of paradoxes loosely tied by platitudes, it is an American institution. It began as a calf-bound volume, formal in manner and dignified in style, and has changed with the tastes of the times, while ever remaining true to its own essential purposes. In recent years its vitality seems impaired; it comes out sometimes in pulp-paper comic-book style, sometimes as a glossy pamphlet primarily pictorial. But it does continue to appear every four years.
During more than a century no major candidate has run for the nation’s highest office without having such a book to back him. Even third-party candidates have generally seen to it that their lives were memorialized in full-length texts. Old in the time of the torchlight parade, the campaign biography has survived competitive presentation of the candidates by national magazines, newsreels, and radio, and it still flourishes, in the era of television, as indestructible as the folk dream of the log cabin itself.