Monday, December 14, 2009

Quote of the Day (Gilbert Highet, on “The Old Gentleman”—An American Icon)

“The old gentleman was riding round his land. He had retired several years ago, after a busy career; but farming was what he liked, and he knew that the best way to keep farms prosperous was to supervise them in person. So although he was approaching 70, he rode round his property for four or five hours, several days each week. It was not easy for him, but it was not difficult either. He never thought whether a thing was easy or difficult. If it ought to be done, it would be done. Besides, he had always been strong. Although his hair was white and his eyes were dimming, he stood a good six feet and weighed 210 pounds. He rose at four every morning. It was December now, Christmas was approaching, snow was in the air, frost and snow on the ground.”—Gilbert Highet, “The Old Gentleman,” in People, Places, and Books (1953)

Sometimes it takes an immigrant to see America’s treasures plainly. And so it was in this case, when Gilbert Highet, who came from Scotland to the U.S. and went on to become a famous professor of Greek and Latin at Columbia University, wrote this essay—a long tease, describing the characteristics of “the old gentleman,” until halfway through the great classicist reveals that it's George Washington.

The one identifiable date on the “December” that Highet had in mind is “winter 1798.” However, this might well be a misprint, as America’s first President died on this date in 1799. It was after just such a morning described by Highet that the President caught a sudden cold from a snowstorm, couldn’t breathe, was subjected to a medical treatment—bleeding several quarts of blood, through leeches—that only worsened matters, then finally died between 10 and 11 o’clock.

Washington’s last wishes were, characteristically, well considered. First, he requested that he have “a decent burial, and that my body is kept for three days before being deposited in the vault.” (Evidently, the Father of His Country feared premature burial—a not uncommon dread in those times.)

Second, immediately after a nightmare the prior summer, in which he had dreamed of dying before his wife Martha, he drafted a 20-plus-page will in which he not only made provisions for relatives, but freed his own slaves—and sought to urge Martha to prepare for manumitting hers.

Washington’s evolution from mostly unthinking slaveholder to someone who clandestinely tried to prepare his slaves’ way as freedmen has made him the one southern Founding Father whose reputation has, if anything, improved even in the face of revisionism.

If there’s one fault with Highet’s essay, it’s that slavery as an issue is buried. Among the things that troubled “the old gentleman,” he writes, was “the danger of disputes between the separate States and the central government.”

That issue—the proper place of federal vs. state authority—is correct enough, but it doesn’t get at the underlying cause of the far-off conflict that Washington dreads. We now know, courtesy of historians James Thomas Flexner, Henry Wieneck, and Roger Wilkins, the extraordinary steps that the retired President took to manumit his slaves in a Virginia plantocracy that was increasingly hardening its attitudes toward race. All of this makes Washington, in his final days, an even more extraordinary figure than Highet even believed.

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