On John Kerry’s eerie resemblance to George Washington

John Kerry 1795, after Gilbert Stuart © 2013 Susan Barsy

Have you noticed that, as John Kerry has aged, he looks a lot like George Washington?

His similarity to the great Founding Father and Commander-in-Chief is unnerving.  It’s as though the ghost of Washington is haunting us, reminding us of his legacy, just in time for Halloween.  When Secretary Kerry appears on television, he unwittingly channels the ghost of Washington.  It’s cautionary.

The ghost prompts the question, “What would George Washington think of our actions overseas?”  Would he have condoned the President’s hawkish determination to punish Syria with military force for its use of chemical weapons against its people?  Would he have applauded the US intelligence forces’ capture of a suspected terrorist in the Libyan capital?  More generally, would George Washington, if alive in our time, be inclined toward intervention, or isolation?

The value of these conjectural questions lies in reminding us of the intimate connection between internal strength and influence abroad.  We need a fixed yardstick against which to measure our global acts and ambitions, which are more over-reaching and morally dubious than they were back in Revolutionary days.  Conscious of enjoying military and technological advantages and relatively ample means, the US frequently intervenes just because it can.  Because it can, our government has been spying on Angela Merkel, of all people.

Alternately, our government follows a schoolyard logic: if Johnny Johnson jumps off a bridge, then so will we.  If our strength relative to other nations continues to supply an irresistible rationale for scatter-shot decisions, soon that strength will be gone; what remains of our moral integrity will vanish, too.

When the United States were weaker, they had little choice but to be savvy about what fights they took on.  In George Washington’s time, a time of global conflict if ever there was one, even the most powerful Americans understood the truly vital importance of focusing on ‘within’ while exercising caution abroad.  While General Washington (1732-1799) was the preeminent ‘hawk’ of his day, he was also a prime founder of the powerful civic institutions that, in their fruition, secured broad national safety and prosperity.

The blessings of that peace were hard-won.  The North America of Washington’s lifetime was shaped by the great global conflict between France and Britain.  As a youth, Washington was one of the earliest participants in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), an expensive multinational conflict waged on the borders of the American colonies that lasted nine years. He then reluctantly led the colonial Revolutionary Army in its War of Independence against the British, a wearisome duty that absorbed him for another eight years’ time (1775-1783).

Given the tortuous path the young nation followed toward establishing a viable government under the US Constitution, George Washington was relatively old by the time he became the nation’s first president.  He governed those eight years with a consciousness of the nation’s fragility, respecting the preciousness of what it had achieved.

Little wonder that, on leaving office, Washington famously warned the nation to avoid the dangers of “foreign entanglements.”  Americans still faced the daunting challenge of growing together as a Union.  The last thing they needed was to become enmeshed in the machinations of world’s great powers.  Violent conflict throughout Europe marked the final years of Washington’s presidency.  Napoleon’s star had begun to rise. The year Washington died, the long Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) were just beginning.  Protecting ourselves from the debilitating snares of global conflict was an important early contributor to our national growth, our 1812 war with England notwithstanding.

There is much to be said for shaping a foreign policy as creditable to a puny government as to one that’s strong.  Sadly, Kerry’s resemblance to Washington is only skin-deep, and President Obama doesn’t resemble George Washington at all.

© 2013 susanbarsy.com


A Meditation on the Old North Bridge

The Old North Bridge, © 2013 Susan Barsy

On a beautiful summer day, with visitors enjoying its views and waters, the Old North Bridge seems an unlikely spot for the beginning of a revolution.  Yet here the first organized and deliberate battle of the American Revolution occurred, when, in April 1775, colonial militia intent on defending their munitions forcefully repelled regulars of the British Army.  Turning them back at the Bridge, the colonials famously sniped at the British as they retreated on a heavily wooded road.

It was the beginning of an eight-year war that the revolutionaries fought with little help from outside.  Once they had killed members of the British armed forces, there was no path back to peace and submission.  There could be no end to defensive resistance, to a rebellion that at first had no unified, all-encompassing aim.  Only after more than a year of bloodshed and ad hoc organization did the thirteen colonies unite in Declaring Independence, justifying their goal, with the aid of Thomas Jefferson’s mighty pen and mind, with the most lofty and universal terms he could devise.

During this period, George Washington transformed the initially rag-tag Revolutionary Army, using stern measures to exact loyalty and obedience, while inveigling the Continental Congress (even as revolutionaries, the colonists had a regular legislative assembly) to provide the money and measures needed to fund the Army and enhance its power to fight.

Ultimately, the colonies triumphed and went on to peacetime success not because of their military might (which arguably remained inferior to the British) but because of the political culture they embodied.  The political processes and traditions that they had always relied on enabled them to retain their cohesion after throwing off the British, and, eventually, to devise a stable new nation based on the Constitution, ratified some thirteen years after the Revolution began.

Far from being alien subjects, the colonists were scarcely distinguishable from their imperial adversaries.  Their cause produced results because they knew and wished to preserve a civil society, in which they could be secure in their enjoyment of specific personal and political rights.  The American Revolution was a narrow struggle, fought by two populations infused with the same liberal traditions and similar attitudes toward the rule of law.

Unlike the revolutions we see around us today, the American revolution was not primarily about religion, nor was it fought along tribal, sectarian, or racial lines.  It was more of a family quarrel, fought between two forces of related bloodlines.

Being creatures of empire, early Americans, once free, quickly exhibited their own imperial tendencies.  Today we are quick to preach power-sharing to nations fraught with internal strife, but on this score we lack an illustrious history.  When it came to indigenous Americans, for example, the Anglo-Americans dominant in the 19th century pursued a policy of removal and territorial appropriation that makes the Japanese-American internment camps of the 20th century look like a friendly garden party.

The Native American tribes, though possessing deep claims to the lands of the American continent, were as unwieldy and threatening in a cultural sense as any terrorist is today.   The notion that white Americans could cohabit or compromise with native peoples, or that two such dissimilar cultures could be harmonized or politically integrated, was too mind-boggling to be entertained.  Instead, the American government used military and political force to extirpate Indians and push them off desirable lands.  Americans’ idea of “power sharing” with the Indian “other” was to expel remaining tribes from the American body politic, cordoning them off  on “reservations,” where they could no longer impinge on, or participate in, the ostensibly egalitarian government that was sovereign by then.

Similarly, in the 1860s, white Americans had to fight a Civil War among themselves, at the cost of some 600,000 lives, to establish the principle that we should not enslave persons whose skin color is different than ours.  It took another hundred years to provide African-Americans with the legal protections necessary for the full exercise of their political rights.

Throughout our Civil War, the rest of the world sat on the sidelines, as the nation sought its direction through a protracted conflict that refined it and left it profoundly changed.  The principles of union, federal authority, and equality that were then irrevocably established laid down the foundations of the nation’s might today.

These facts about our history must be recalled as we consider intervening in revolutionary conflicts in other countries.  The paramount importance of civil culture should be borne in mind as we contemplate giving military aid or committing ourselves militarily in other ways.  We tell ourselves that stepping in will lead to a more just result, or an earlier peace, but what process of internal development or resolution are we short-circuiting?  We say that other countries should tolerate and politically empower radicalized or militant minorities, though this isn’t something we’ve ever done with ours.

Much as our hearts are moved with compassion for the suffering that accompanies violent conflicts that are unbounded and unequal, we should be humble in our response, recalling the long path we have traveled from Revolution to tolerance and inclusion—a centuries-long struggle that continues even now, long since peace returned to the Old North Bridge.