Sunday, February 10, 2008

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Notes From My Knapsack 2-17-08
Jeff Gill

The Man Who Would Not Be King

George Washington fought against King and Country, from the point of view of George the Third of Great Britain.

The House of Hanover’s hapless heirs had helped many like Washington see the hopelessness of reaching a negotiated democratic settlement with an hereditary monarchy.

Lord North didn’t help much, either.

Next year about this time the main attention will rightly go towards Honest Abe, as Lincoln’s 200th birthday will come February 12, 2009. (And that same day, Charles Darwin, for those of you completing your set of historical coincidences!)

What has picked up the unofficial name “Presidents’ Day” comes from the coincidence of Lincoln’s Feb. 12 birthdate and Washington’s Feb. 22, which just to make matters worse, or more interesting for real history geeks, is Feb. 11, because he was born 276 years ago, before the British Empire adopted the full Gregorian system of keeping a calendar, shifting dates forward by eleven days. Anyhow.

(And Black History Month comes from the conjunction of Lincoln’s and Frederick Douglass’ birthdays in what was first called by Carter Woodson “Black History Week.” Anyhow.)

But the federal holiday we observe tomorrow is, in fact, “Washington’s Birthday,” and Millard Fillmore and Richard Nixon will have to look elsewhere for their day in the sun.

Why this focus on one individual?

When King George III was told in 1783 that Washington declined further power and wanted only to return to his farm, he declared, "If Washington does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." For once, King George III may have been right.

George Washington was repeatedly asked to become monarch of the new nation he helped bring into existence as commander of the Continental Army, especially by folks like Alexander Hamilton who thought they stood a chance of being named George’s heir (Washington had no children.) It was only with great reluctance he allowed himself to be elected President, and more so for a second term, where he drew a line, and rode home to Mount Vernon. For this Lord Byron picked up on his ruler’s earlier comment, and on the end of Washington’s political career called him the “Cincinnatus of the West,” echoing a figure from the classic period of the Roman republic who voluntarily gave up power, and accidentally named an Ohio city some years later.

In light of the example and role of “the man who would not be king,” Rod Dreher of the Dallas Morning News editorial board asks on his blog: “Which ten American historical figures would you cite that would give a high school student a decent, if incomplete, grounding in American history? The question is not about the Ten Most Important Americans, though certainly the lists could overlap. Think hard about this. Think about the lives Americans have lived since the colonial times, and come up with ten reasonably well-known people whose biographies convey something essential about the American character and experience.”

With the added qualification of “Presidents excluded,” Rod has picked up a bunch of suggested lists that often go something like this: “Muhammad Ali, John Wayne, George S. Patton, Neil Armstrong, Mark Twain, William Randolph Hearst, Robert E. Lee, Alexander Hamilton, Davy Crockett, and a combo pick, Sitting Bull/Geronimo/Crazy Horse.”

A woman, reading a series of lists of ten with all men, suggested this list: “Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Elizabeth Blackwell, Margaret Sanger, Mother Jones, Mary McLeod Bethune, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Cochran, Margaret Chase Smith.”

Go to and search for “Ten Names” to see quite a slew of suggestions along these lines, but actually almost any of them would create an interesting framework for teaching the outline of American history through the lens of lives such as these.

But whatever list you might most prefer, there’s no such roster that would be as complete or effective without George Washington’s presence. Monday, enjoy a pancake, his favorite food, and salute him in your own way.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s tried the Mount Vernon recipe for “hoecakes” and will stick with Bisquick. Send him your historic recipes at

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