Gods and heroes. May 30, 2008Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: Blue Highways, George Washington, Newport RI, William Least Heat Moon
Our friend Ben is, ahem, still reading Blue Highways. It’s William Least Heat Moon’s account of a road trip he took across the U.S., sticking to the back roads, in the late Seventies.
Yesterday I read the chapter in which Least Heat Moon arrived in Newport, Rhode Island. He likes to give a little history about each place where he stops, and of course, Newport has more than a little history to recount. But in this case, he gave a little vignette that was so wonderful and thought-provoking that our friend Ben has to share it with you.
First, a bit of background. George Washington was so revered after the Revolution that he often made ceremonial progresses—trips with welcoming parades in every town—through the former Colonies just so people could see him. And they turned out in droves everywhere he went, clearly aware that they were seeing a piece of living history. It’s hard to imagine who could inspire a turnout like that today, or even within (relatively) recent memory. The pope? Elvis? Simon Cowell? Dale Earnhardt? Bob Marley? JFK? The Beatles? Not even close.
Back to the story: Least Heat Moon recounts how, when Washington was parading through Newport, a little boy, held up by his father for a better view, finally got a glimpse of Washington. Surprised, he blurted out, “Why, Father! General Washington is a man!” Hearing the carrying, high-pitched voice, Washington replied, “Yes, only a man.”
Only a man. This made our friend Ben do a little time-travelling, back to the days when kings were routinely regarded as more than men, when they were considered to rule by Divine right. Which is to say, that God Himself had set their line upon the throne, and what man is to question God’s own choice? Thus, weak men and even madmen were allowed to keep their thrones, and regicide was considered an act against God as well as man. And thus it took a revolution to bring down a monarchy.
We could take the time machine still farther back, to Imperial Rome or Pharaonic Egypt, where rulers, living and dead, were worshiped as gods themselves. Or to the heroes of the Golden Age, where partial divinity was the birthright of almost all great heroes: Cuchulainn, fathered by a god; Achilles, born of a goddess. Clearly, no mere mortal could possess such prowess and power, could have been set so far above his fellow mortals simply through exceptional skill, unwavering focus, and fortunate circumstance. Here we have the most direct form of divine intervention.
With the exception of that very young child, no one in Washington’s day believed that he was more than human. But everyone felt that he was larger than life. (Which, by the way, was literally true: In a time when the average male height hovered around 5’8″ or 9″, Washington towered over almost all of his contemporaries at 6’4″. His heroic stature was definitely an asset, and he used it to his advantage throughout his life.)
The former colonists were quite ready to appoint him America’s own King George by popular acclaim, too. It was perhaps Washington’s most heroic deed that he walked away from kingship, and even walked away from the presidency, which could certainly have been his for life, after only two terms. In his day, this was recognized throughout Europe, by monarchs, politicians, and intellectuals alike, as an astonishing, unheard-of thing: to hold power, and the potential for absolute power, and simply to walk away.
But George Washington recognized that, for America to be truly free, to become the republic that the Founders envisioned and that so many patriots had fought and sacrificed for, it had to be free of him. And he had to be free of it—free to return to his beloved Mount Vernon, to enjoy the companionship of family and friends, to ride over the land he loved. To get back to the garden.
Yes, Washington was “only” a man. No god sired him, no goddess gave birth to him. (Though his mother, Mary Washington, was apparently quite a force to be reckoned with in her own right.) He did not rule by Divine right; he did not rule at all. But his ideals, and his pursuit of them, were truly heroic, in the best sense of that word. Our friend Ben can only wish that we had more “mere” men like him today.