Read an Excerpt
Mount Veronon, Virginia, December 1799
On the night of December 11, 1799, Gen. George Washington, retired now from the presidency of the United States for more than two years, sixty-seven years old and feeling older, saw a large, misty ring around the moon that hung over Mount Vernon.
"Coming on snow, General," Bill Lee said. They were on the front lawn. The big white house that stood for so much in Washington's life gleamed in the pale light. Bill was the general's manservant, huge, black, devoted, crippled in body now and hung on the bottle as well, but he'd seen the general through the war and all that had followed. His speech was blurred by the loss of his teeth, providing another bond; Washington's teeth were gone, his dentures painful, his speech necessarily careful. Which was all right--measured speech added to his gravity.
"Maybe not," Washington said. Billy would be free with a lifetime income to support him when the general was gone. He was a good man and loyal, but you didn't look to him for decisions.
In the morning the mercury stood at thirty-three, wind from the northeast wet and clammy, clouds hanging low.
"Don't look good, General," Billy said. They were in the stable, grooms saddling their mounts.
"You stay back, Billy--sit by the fire."
"Nah, suh. You go, I go."
"Well, I've never let a little weather stop me."
"Yes, suh, but--"
"I know--I'm older now. But that doesn't mean I'll roll over and die when I see snow. Now that's enough talk."
They rode out of the barn. Temperature down, wind brisk, it was chill. He thought of the fire crackling in his study, quills sharpened and waiting on the gleaming desk. But he had rounds to make, fields and herds to examine, walls to check and foremen to query. That heifer in the far barn with the sore in her mouth, how was she doing? Hands expected to see the master as soldiers expected to see the general; you couldn't sit in your tent all day and pretend to be a leader. Presently it began to snow.
"I done told you I smelled snow," Billy said.
"That you did, Billy."
The snow eased into steady rain. He drew his greatcoat collar closer. He didn't want to see the day when rain could drive him from duty. But the balm he normally drew from the very sight of his land was lacking today. George Cabot's letter had disturbed him deeply and he'd scarcely slept, lying there listening to Martha's gentle breathing with awful visions of his country in trouble flashing in his mind. They were still there.
Listen to George up in Boston and it seemed the nation the general had nurtured was sinking in a tide of venom. Federalists attacking Democrats, Democrats snarling at Federalists. Damn all political parties anyway, shattering the American ideal! Of course, George did see things in extremes, but here he was talking of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as handmaidens of the devil. The general knew that no more decent man than Jimmy Madison had ever walked, let alone one smarter, but George saw all Democrats as Beelzebub's minions. The blind conviction of his hatred told the story. Still, it wasn't just Federalists--Democrats were haters too.
He sighed, slouching in his saddle. The thing was--but then he saw a sagging fence. Better have Henderson get those posts reset immediately. He swung down and lifted the post straight, kicking dirt in around it. When he remounted he felt rather surprisingly winded. He was older, granted, but worse, he felt old; the word sweeping by him, the country troubled. But what had kept him awake much of the night was George's echo of a call that came more and more often: Come back, take command again, hold us together again lest we fly into fragments. But that was ridiculous, his time was past; John Adams was president now. Rescue us, show us the way, make us do right--they sounded like children acting up while the schoolmaster was out back relieving himself!
At the far barn Norris had set a fire, and Washington warmed his hands before turning to the heifer. She was standing, a good sign; he forced open her jaw and ran an experienced finger along its lower side. Yes, the canker was definitely shrinking. She rolled her eyes and bawled when he let her go. More of the blue ointment, he told Norris; keep after it.
Riding on, rain slanting against his face, he mulled over the nation's divisions. Hold us together, Cabot mewing like a pussycat.
"Why in the devil does everyone look to me?" He glared at Billy. "Answer me that!"
Billy had a chaw tucked in his cheek. He spat a brown gout to clear for speech. "Why, General," he said, "'cause you knows what to do. Most folks don't know diddledum, but you got your head fixed on right. Most…well, look at me, hungering after the rum when I know it tears me up. But you…"
Well, it had been a rhetorical question anyway. He turned his horse to the path. But Billy was right; he'd always known what to do. Holding them together--the army, the country, the people--been successful too, until the rise of opposing political parties divided Americans who once had been a single people. At the start we were all together, in war, in striking a new Constitution, in firming the nation's place in the world.
His horse stumbled and he rose automatically in the stirrups. But once the new nation was on its feet, his own cabinet had split, young Alexander Hamilton, his favorite, really, off like a greyhound toward a future he could see more clearly than anyone else. And his other favorite, little Jimmy Madison, turned suddenly rabid in support of Mr. Jefferson, a man with whom the general had known from the beginning he would never be close. Tom and Jimmy had dug in their heels over a radically different vision.
He hadn't seen the split coming. They'd had problems and Alex had offered solutions. Tom and Jimmy saw dangers ahead, but Alex's solutions were immediate and real. But, now, looking back, what if Tom and Jimmy had been right all along? Alex was a near genius in finance, handsome, elegant, loyal--Washington felt him a sort of son. But that didn't mean he was always right. Sometimes ambition betrayed him, the hungers of a poor boy who has risen too fast, the arrogance of a mind that raced beyond other. But genius wasn't all the mattered. Heart mattered too.
A sudden image of Jefferson popped into his mind, tall, elegant of manner, rusty hair graying, head thrown back in that characteristic way when a thought struck him, saying, "Above all, trust the honest heart of the common man." The honest heart. Now that, George Washington well knew, was the plain truth.
Another memory…a column of his men, must have been in 'seventy-nine or maybe 'eighty, in there somewhere, the war settling into a terrible grind, the British locked into New York and Boston and holding hard. It was near dusk and he'd called a small attack and come out to watch the column go by, lean, hungry-looking men with rifles in hand, near empty haversacks slung, battered hats drooping over stern faces, rags tied around shoes that rotted on their feet. Marching out to fight, knowing that some wouldn't return, knowing that before the night was out they might be running in retreat before superior British numbers. The whole trick was to go in and hit hard, sting the enemy, throw him off balance, keep him on edge, and then slip away to fight him another day. It would be a long time before those men slept.
He'd stood and watched them pass, and as they went by they'd nodded. Nodded! "Evening, Ginral." "Evening, sir." "How do, Ginral?" They would salute on the parade ground, but here it was one soldier to another, one citizen to another, men with honest hearts marching to war. Evening, Ginral.
His eyes blurred for a moment. He blinked rapidly. The rain slanted harder, occasionally flaking into snow; he should go back, he supposed. Yes, he was older now and intimations that he wouldn't live indefinitely were coming with disconcerting frequency. But he wasn't gone yet, and until then…
He knew why George Cabot's importuning disturbed him--it stirred the old call of leadership. He'd always been a leader. Born poor but of solid family, he'd molded himself so. Leading his men into combat for the British back in the French and Indian War--he'd been just a boy then, God, he'd been green, he'd had so much to learn. But some of his strength was the capacity to learn while holding poise and equilibrium. He'd made mistakes and sometimes they'd cost lives, but he never was flummoxed, never let his distress show, and he learned. His power wasn't in brilliant schemes nor seeing deeper than anyone else could see but rather in the capacity to grasp the whole, make the parts work, calm passions, hold control when things wanted to go out of control.
But now? Martha said sixty-seven wasn't old, but age is measured in more than years. It had been a long road…
He was home well before dinner at three, half hour at least.
"George!" Martha cried. "Didn't you take shelter? Look at you--you're all wet."
He frowned; he wasn't really wet.
"Flakes of snow in your hair! Oh, George! Your inner coat is damp too. Go and change; get something dry--"
All this maternal fussing! He couldn't help the iron in his voice, "That will do, madam." He was ready for dinner now. Actually he did feel a bit of a chill, but it was a little late now to mention the tickle in his chest. He took a long sip of claret and felt the act of swallowing, not a good sign.
After dinner, ignoring a half-dozen new letter, he read the papers aloud and soon had Martha laughing over his comments. As concession to that tickle in his chest he went to bed early and in the morning decided not to go out. There was the new mail and swallowing his tea had been, yes, difficult. Why not cosset himself? After all, he wasn't as young…
Letters full of fear and foreboding from Fisher Ames and Timothy Pickering and Oliver Wolcott and one from Colonel Hamilton picking poor John Adams apart. John was having a troubled presidency, attacked by his own party as well as by Democrats and taking it hard. And why shouldn't he? The general himself took criticism like a bee-stung horse, and what was wrong with that? A man who'd molded himself into a leader wasn't likely to sit around with a smile as folks savaged him. And the Democratic papers had made brutal personal attacks in his last years in office, and if he could lay hands on a few of the worst editors he'd give them a taste of the horsewhip…except that that would be beneath his dignity.
When Cullie brought tea he asked her to add a little honey to ease his throat and say nothing to Mrs. Washington. A dull ache lay at the center of his chest. He sat by his window gazing over his grounds where three inches of snow had fallen overnight. He loved this place. As he studied it, he felt decision forming: those trees yonder did, after all, mar the view and should be cut. It was always his way, study as long as needed, then unshakeable decision and prompt action. He'd walk out later and mark the trees. Thus he had run army and country.
The letters echoed Cabot's call--come back, come back. It was a cry of anguish, but it was the wrong prescription. There was no gong back, there never was.
On the other hand, that didn't mean there was nothing he could do. A leader must find his own way to lead. The problem was our divisions, the fear we would break apart or come to civil war. He shut his eyes, listening to the fire crackle, and it came to him that this new division of the parties really was but a metaphor for a struggle for the nation's soul. Who are we? What kind of country do we want? Maybe that query had been in the wings from the beginning and we'd been too busy winning independence and getting onto our feet to notice. Maybe it was maturity that brought it before us, lingering immaturity that made dealing with it so difficult.
But what could he do? A leader must rise above problems, see deeper and understand more than others. Parties seduced men into dogmatism--your way comes to seem the right way and then the only way and then the sanctified way, and opposition becomes first aberration, then evil, then treason. How to lift his people above that? He must find the kernal of truth, grasp it whole, turn it like a gem to the light, and make his people see as broadly as did he. He could do that--call for a big public dinner, let people know he had something to say. When he had everyone's attention, give them a talk or even a metaphorical toast that would guide quarreling men back to sanity.
But what would he actually say? He must be very careful, must think it all through as he once and done in war, for he knew he would get just one chance and then the force of his words would be gone. Think it through, ruminate across the years, see what they had wrought…and where they'd failed. He sighed, adjusted the chair's bolster at his neck, and let his mind drift back to the war where it all had begun. He'd been an ignorant Virginia farmer--he could see that now--and had learned about the varied country and its immensely varied people with not a few pratfalls. But his men stayed with him, they taught him, and he learned, and they went to war together…
He'd never found decision difficult, but now with thousands of men awaiting his orders and a skilled army prepared to destroy him, he faced overwhelming detail. Everything--weather, food supplies, clothing and blankets, shoes, wagon stock and the animals to draw them, stocks of powder and ball, and when he could expect replenishment, how many ill or wounded and hence how many effectives, how to force feuding generals to work together, how to meld Virginia and Massachusetts troops into units, scout reports on terrain and the enemy…
Stunning detail, long lists, piles of reports on his camp desk, he reading and trying to remember. Soon he began writing summaries, just extended lists at first, but the very process of writing produced such order, logic, and coherence that lists turned into essays. His pen scratched steadily down sheet after sheet of foolscap as the candle guttered on his desk and his camp bed remained smooth and untouched. Step by step the mass of information became a solid whole, and then, simply and clearly, decision took care to itself.
Was today so different? He felt the same confusion and clashes, same omnipresent sense of danger, the old calls to leadership renewed. How to respond? Surely as he had before-think it through, write it out--or, at least, think it out. Suddenly he was more content that he'd been in weeks: yes, review all that had happened till he knew the answers.
Martha leaned on the back of his chair. She put her hands on his throat. They were warm and he sighed. "You're not well, are you?" It was a statement and he didn't deny it.
"A cold," he said. "I'll shake it off."
"I knew you took a chill. I'm mix the medicine."
"No--you know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came, without help."
"But, George, you're not as--"
"I know." He raised a hand. "Ask Cullie for more tea." There was a limit to just how much he would cosset himself. He was busy now…go back to the start, when things were simple. They had fought for eight fierce years; eyes shut, he let images of war roll in his mind. He had never seriously doubted they would win, and finally the British saw the reality and went home.
Ah, that November day in eighty-three! He'd grouped his troops just above New Your City while the last British soldiers boarded ships off the Battery. Then, his big warhorse, Nelson, prancing under him--Old Nelson felt as proud as he did--he led the boys in. People lined the streets in awestruck silence and then burst into a stunning roar. Hats flew in the air, women rushed forward with hothouse flowers in thick bunches, Henry Knox's cannon on the heights opened in wild salute…
Flowery welcome speeches said no one but General Washington could have held it all together and made independence work. That was fair enough. He had a clear sense of himself: solid, strong, able, self-contained, intelligent--but, mind you, not brilliant, not even clever, never scheming, not the most rapid man in thought, not intellectual, not a wide reader, his real interests agricultural, all qualities that meant he understood his men and they understood him.
He knew himself very well. Slow to decide but unshakeable when he did; profound judgment proved over the years. He'd held them together, the boys suffering through winter after winter, gathering themselves for another awful forced march to another slashing attack and quick retreat--the men of the Revolution, great men, gallant, loyal, dangerous men with the taste of independence in their mouths.
Marched into New York to the boom of cannon and at four that very afternoon he summoned his senior officers to Fraunce's Tavern not far from the Battery. Looking at their familiar faces, lined now where once they had been smooth and young, he felt the tears start. Grew worse as he took each in hard embrace, whispering thanks and farewell and Godspeed. An hour later he was crossing the Hudson, heading south. It was over.
King George III, who had his odd moments but was nobody's fool, was reputed to have said that if General Washington gave up power now the American would be the great man of the eighteenth century. Well, he could have justified hanging on. Many men so urged, brimming with reasons, the country staggering out of the disciplinary grip of war, a weak and quarreling Congress, states that viewed themselves as separate powers, European nations looking upon us as a hawk looks on goslings. Men tried to push duty on him, told him, he owed them a ruling hand. He remembered being infuriated one day, close to knocking the man down.…now he couldn't remember who it was.…
But it was clear he could have been king, and the thought about it. Power is sweet; he knew that who doubts that hasn't tasted it or is a liar. But he gave it up and went south in a great rattling coach with four horses that Simon Simcoe of Camden had loaned him, cheering crowds and cannon salutes and children with hothouse flowers all the way. The darling of the people. Tendered his commission to Congress with a graceful speech, tears standing in his eyes. Then he was free.…Mount Vernon and Martha awaited.
Even now, he remembered his contentment. He had been true to himself. He was a man of probity, above the slashing swords of ambition and desire and hence all sides could turn to him.
Meanwhile, he must mark those trees. He summoned Billy with the axe, wrapped a scarf around his neck in deference to a throat that now was worse than sore, and walked out, boots growing damp in three inches of snow.
"General," Billy said, "you look like something the cat drug in. You better stay inside."
"I'll manage," he said. He was very tired. Suddenly it seemed quite intolerable that people should call on him again--just too much!
Billy was holding the axe close to the head. "Show me which trees. I'll blaze 'em."
"I'll do it!"
"Damn you, Billy, shut your mouth!" He was in a fury, hands shaking. He snatched the axe. Billy started at him, dismayed but not cowed. It struck Washington that he must be sicker than he thought.…
"All right," he said at last. He touched Billy on the shoulder. "Maybe I'm not so well after all." It wasn't quite an apology. He passed over the axe. "You do the rest."
The pain in his chest expanded. He began to shiver, overtaken by a chill despite his coat. They walked back to the house in silence. He was searching for something to say to Billy when the big man said, "You'll feel better tomorrow, General. You don't mind my saying it, you'll find a dollop of corn would go good right now."
The general smiled. "I believe you're right, Billy."
Inside, he asked Cullie to lace his tea with whiskey. He pulled off his boots and put slippered feet toward the fire before Martha could admonish him. His pipe had a foul taste, not a good sign. He was surprisingly tired, and he put his head back in the big blue chair, eyes shut, remembering.…
Home from war he'd seen immediately that a tottering confederation under a toothless Congress with no chief of state must fail. He remembered his surprise that it came as a surprise. There was just no focusing authority to hold states together. So he'd put into motion the steps upon steps that led to forming a new government.
There was a heat wave in Philadelphia that summer of 1787. Dancing on burning cobblestones and shedding coats in the stifling chamber reminded them of their common humanity, he felt, inducing humility. They met in the State House, in the same room where years before he had accepted command, and seated themselves at the same little tables covered in green baize. He took his place on a small dais between two dormant fireplaces faced with marble. He scarcely spoke; he was a commander, not an orator.
And he watched them unfold a miracle.
He jerked awake. Martha was standing over him, her hand on his forehead. She gave him a cup of thick pea soup that slid down his aching throat and said he must go to bed. In the bedroom she helped him disrobe. He made her face the wall when he pulled on his nightshirt--modesty holds to the end--and then sank into the feathers, exhausted. He let her spoon the potion of emetic, James powder and Peruvian bark, into his mouth.
"George," she said, "I forbid you to be ill." She sat on the edge of the bed and wiped his face. He brought her hand to his lips. She was about now with jowls and double chin that accentuated her pointed nose, and her beauty of long ago had not faded but changed, gone inside, evident as ever through her eyes. She'd been a widow when he'd married her and well-to-do, not a small matter, and perhaps for both of them it had been as much arrangement as passion. He had known passions; now he wanted solidity, a woman how could manage a home and complete a life. And over forty-one years respect had deepened into profound love, and he was never quite so content as when she was near.
He lay there, drifting and dreaming and wondering, back in Philadelphia again listening to them build a new nation. They would have a president, and soon he saw they expected him to take the post and give it shape. Good enough. Sliding toward sleep, his breathing very shallow, ignoring the fire in his throat, he saw that this was why finding the way was so important. In Philadelphia they had created a form in which free men could live in peace, granting the rights of others while retaining their own. It was a noble document and it should live forever.
Indeed, it was proving itself out at just this moment of George Cabot's terror, when Alexander Hamilton was doing his best to crush the Democrats. Jimmy Madison had overcome the great pitfall of democracy, how to have majority rule while still preserving the rights of the minority. He'd crafted an intricate balance of powers between the three branches: Freedom within limits--divided legislature with staggered terms, each branch forced to yield to the others, two-thirds to impeach, three-fifths to limit debate.…
The general supposed Jimmy felt fully estranged from him now. Madison had left the Congress and was rusticating at his estate in Virginia, a great waste. Suddenly wistful, he thought how good it would be to see Jimmy again, see him walk in and flash that shy smile and hear his soft voice laying out logic in that building-block way of his.
And the general would say, my boy, you saved yourself and your people with that wonderful document. For as things had worked out, now wonderful Democrats had become an angry minority that couldn't be silenced no matter how the Federalists tried. Good…as much as the general admired Hamilton he didn't like to think of a man with Alex's instincts ruling without limits. Wouldn't be much different from that young devil Napoleon, now shattering the old orders in Europe, probably forevermore. Not that shattering the old orders was bad--open 'em up and let in air and light. But we needed to Napoleons in America.
Lying quietly on his side, swallowing only when he must, he searched those early days for hints of the trouble that was to come. Well, getting started had been the easy part. He'd been elected in an atmosphere of good humor. Hamilton as secretary of the treasury and Jefferson as secretary of state would be the key cabinet figures. Jimmy Madison was a congressman from Virginia and became the general's leading advisor.
Alike in their powerful minds, Jimmy and Alex were startlingly different in every other way: Hamilton handsome, vivid, swift of thoughts, clever to a fault, dashing with women; Madison modest, retiring, thoughtful, stimulating in quiet conversation, but downright dull in social situations. You never saw him with a woman in those days. But when he did stir himself to look at a woman, lo and behold, he chose the gorgeous Widow Todd, her husband swept away in the great yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia.
Miss Dolley was as charming as she was beautiful, and when she began appearing on Jimmy Madison's arm the whole town took note and some of the racier lads made book on whether the would have the nerve to follow through. The general loved to dance with Miss Dolley--he danced with all the women, of course, a champion of the minuet, but she was special. Martha turned matchmarker: Had Jimmy spoken? She said Dolley looked ready to cry as she shook her head. Martha marched to Jimmy: This young woman was a prize and he'd better be sensible. The general was dubious about interfering in matters of the heart, but Martha pished him to silence and the proved right, for the wedding followed and they seemed supremely happy. That was in the easy days, dancing with Dolley before things turned harsh.
He was less familiar with Jefferson, who was just back from six years as ambassador to France under the old government. They'd gotten off to a poor start when Jefferson had delayed accepting the appointment. Took a couple of months to get a yes out of him, and the general heard that Jimmy had had to make a hard case to persuade him. Jefferson had wanted to sit on that mountaintop he called Monticello--a pretentious name, really, not that that was any of the general's business--but it was his business that a man would hesitate when asked to serve at a crucial time. It embarrassed Jimmy; he and Jefferson were the closest of friends.
John Adams was vice president. Fussy, good-hearted, honest, more proud of himself than any man needed to be, John was always ready to talk himself into trouble. He proposed the most god-awful kingly forms you could imagine what a thirteen-word title for the president, his most exalted etc. etc. The general never did get it really straight, but he cut right through the uproar--his title would be president of the United States and the direct address would be Mr. President and that was that! It had held so far; he hoped it would hold forever. A good start for a democracy…but then, thinking about it, he saw that the incident had foretold the divisions of the future.
He snapped awake and knew instantly that he was much worse. His throat was aflame, his breathing labored. All at once breath stopped! Plugged! As if a hand clutched his throat. Strangling, he raised himself with a hoarse cry. Martha sat up, sleeping cap askew, horror in her eyes. He stretched an imploring hand toward her and then miraculously his passages opened and he took a rasping breath.
"I'll go for help," she said, throwing back the covers. "We'll call Mr. Rawlins."
He stopped her. Rawlins took care of the people down to the quarters and was expert with lancet and cup. Washington knew he needed bleeding, he could feel the evil humors in his veins, but if he let Martha wander the cold house she'd be as sick as he was. He viewed this as pragmatic: Bleeding could wait and he would need her before this was over. Yet he also had an odd sense that nothing really mattered. The suspicion that he was approaching the end was growing. They would call the doctors, but everyone knew that past a certain point doctors were helpless. He'd many times contemplated dying, doubtless everyone had, but never as an immediate prospect. Yet somehow he found the possibility not unduly disturbing.
He turned on his side and Martha held his hand in both of hers. He found that he could breathe through his nose and his throat eased a little and he slid into sleep. When he awakened he was dizzy, head whirling, and he lay very still, listening to Martha breathe. She was awake and he knew she was frightened, but there was nothing more he could say to her. He felt he was chasing something, a fragment forgotten, left undone. His mind dipped and whirled. A duty…
With an effort he remembered…he must put together a message and it must be exactly right. Recall their early enthusiasm. They were new and highly experimental, the only democracy in the world, moving on trial and error and struggling for balance. Now they must reclaim that focus. Somehow.
He lay in the dark taking careful, shallow breaths, afraid his throat would close again, asking himself if that original focus and really been so strong, since it faded when they faced real issues. It all began there, factions, clashing ambitions, rage bordering into hatred--still, he knew now that parties wouldn't go away because it was no accident that they had arisen. They represented the great philosophical schism breaking not on personalities but on opposite answers to that question, what kind of a country were we to be? He began to shiver and a cough tore his throat. Tears in his eyes, he tried to hold to his task…as soon they came to real things the question opened.
At the time he'd had no idea that the break was at hand. He wondered: if he'd been wiser, more prescient? Well, it didn't matter now. The problem was that they were broke, and the trouble arose in what to do about it. No nation can live long in insolvency. The trouble lay in those state bonds issued helter-skelter to finance the war and still outstanding, interest unpaid for years. He'd passed out bales of them himself, payment to a gray-faced farmer for a dozen steers; payment to a wounded soldier for his service when real money was scarce as hen's teeth. This debt now in the many millions undermined everything. What sayest thee, Mr. Secretary of the Treasury? Within weeks, Alex had dropped two elegant designs on the cabinet table. Whence came Alex's financial genius? He was thirty-five, bastard son of a Scottish planter in the West Indies, his only training in finance the keeping of ledgers in an island store before he came to America. Yet overnight he had put the national economy on a sound footing--and it was only later that it became evident that he'd also torn the cover off the philosophical question.
His eyes popped open--daylight. Rawlins was standing by the bed, gazing down on him. Martha was up and dressed. He'd slept but felt no better. Rawlins was quivering with fear. He was a tall man with a permanent stoop who was uneasy among his betters. Get on with it, Mr. Rawlins, don't be afraid--but no sound came so the general pointed emphatically at the big vein in the crook of his right arm. Lips trembling, Rawlins drew up a stool and braced the arm on his knee.
Martha watched from the end of the bed. "Not too much," she said.
Rawlins wiped the broad blade of the lancet on his sleeve. Bracing the heel of his hand on the arm he made a swift, clean incision, clamped his thumb on the vein above the cut, put the cup in place, and let the blood run out of the instrument. The general watched the cup filling with satisfaction. He felt better already. Bleeding was just the ticket to relieve the blood of the humors that caused the trouble. He'd used it for years, swore by it.
When the cup was full, Martha said, "That's enough."
Anger forced open his throat. "More!"
"Yes, sir!" Rawlins placed a second cup.
"George, darling, you'll weaken yourself."
With a second cup gone, he nodded and Rawlins stopped the wound. He felt suddenly weak and shut his eyes.
"Are you all right?" she said. He nodded. "Better," he croaked. He wanted to sleep.
"Take a bit of the medicine," she said.
His throat had closed again, but he raised himself obediently and she poured in a spoonful. With his throat closed, the mixture had no place to go and suddenly he was strangling! He lunged upward, it was in his bronchial tubes, he blew the medicine out on the bed and fell back in a near faint, the pain in his throat as bad as anything he remembered from a wound.
"George, darling--" But he raised a hand. Please, let me sleep. She sat on the side of the bed, her warm hand stroking his face. He heard her sweet voice, "Sleep, darling."
Yet the pain was too great--and yes, the sense of urgency. The way he felt now he doubted he'd be speaking to anyone. But somehow that made the quest more pressing, time narrowing down; he must find the answers. See that political parties won't go away so we can't let them destroy us. Keep them in bounds.…
But by thunder, he still thought Alex's plans had been wise. First, the new nation would take over the state debts, issuing new bonds, interest to be paid by taxes. Second, it would establish a national bank, quite an unknown critter here. Together, the two would stabilize the national economy, provide a new source of credit and a reliable currency, and assure foreign capital that it would be safe here.
It had seemed perfect, but immediately a storm of protest had arisen from men who scented royalist tendencies and cried that the bank was just like the Bank of England, which actually was one of its strong points. The government was still in New York then, in that ungainly building that later fell down or would have if they hadn't torn it down; the general hated inferior work, which he thought described the Democratic view. He remembered studying quarter-inch gaps in window fames as they talked. The quarrel had turned his Cabinet room into a battleground. He'd started to cut Jimmy off and then decided to let it rage. Madison and Jefferson were an effective team. He thought Jimmy provided the hard, analytical thought, Tom the flashing ideas and flights of rhetoric.
They listened as Alex presented the first leg, the bonds, and then Jimmy's icy question, "What about the original holders?"
"What about them?" Alex had a way of hunching his head down into his shoulders when he saw a fight coming.
Jimmy glanced at the general. "The original holders, mostly your soldiers, sir, plus the shoemaker and the gunsmith and the farmer who took these bonds for services; they haven't been able to save their certificates. Had to sell them off for what they could get in hard times. And who was buying? Speculators, paying as little as a tenth of the face value. Now, Alex, you know that perfectly well."
"Then for God's sake, take them into account! Give them some of the payment."
"Track them all down? Spend years when we're sinking right now? That's baseless idea, all bleeding heart. Point is not to rescue little men but to save the country!"
The general remembered Jimmey's voice going flat, and he'd seen this would get no easier. "I see a plot," Jimmy said, "a design to give vast windfall profits to men who literally stole from the little people who supported the war…"
A little later the bank produced an equal fight. Alex envisioned it as a treasury binding private capital to government. As the official repository for government money, its bills would be as good as gold, and we would have stable money at last. It would be tax-supported, but 80 percent would be owned privately.
"Privately? By whom?" Again, Jimmy moving to the attack.
The general remembered Alex's sharp, glinting glance, suspicious, a bit too surprised that anyone would be dull enough to ask, a manner that had reduced many antagonists to silence. Then in a rush, "Who do you think, Jimmy? Men who have money, naturally. They're the ones we need."
"But won't they shape policies of this bank of yours to suit their own ends? To the detriment of the common citizen?"
Something feral in Alex's expression, lips pulled back on his teeth. "Certainly--that's the point! Take care of people with money, and they'll take care of the country. Give them a financial stake in the country's success and it'll succeed." The general had seen immediately that the great question was opening. He'd sat back and let it unfold.
Alex pointed a quivering finger at Jimmy. "You know why? Because money is the real power in any country."
"No, sir! The people are the real power."
"My foot, they are! Men are creatures of self-interest. Damned little happens for love of country--save love talk for the bedroom, for God's sake. Money is what drives any country."
That was Alex, harsh, cutting, contemptuous of opposition. It made him effective, but it was a weakness too; someday he might pay for that arrogance.
"You're planning a cheat on the people," Jefferson said slowly. "Brutalize little men who have no recourse. It's a hoax to reduce honest American yeomen to serfs of the wealthy."
Their intensity shook the general a little. There was the division defined. What should government be? Tom and Jimmy said policies should help all citizens and especially the poor, since the rich took care of themselves. But Alex was rewarding the rich at the expense of the poor.
"General? General? Can you hear me?" Familiar voice, hand tugging his. He came swimming up from very deep under, Jimmy's words still loud in his mind, and opened his eyes to see Jim Craik at his bedside. Ah…good old Craik would know what to do. The very sight of the worn lines in Craik's cheeks swept him back to the forests of Kentucky in the French and Indian affair when they'd been together under Braddock, he the regimental colonel, Craik regimental surgeon. The doctor had been a new graduate in medicine from Pennsylvania Hospital, and he'd cared for his patients with the same loyal intensity that Washington gave his men.
The general's voice was a croak. "Bleed me," he said. He saw Jim had the cup in his hand.
"Mr. Rawlins already bled him," Martha said. He heard the uncertainty in her voice. "Two cups."
He tried to speak but nothing came out and he had a moment of panic, it was like awakening in a coffin, hearing voices outside but unable to say--with a convulsive effort that tore his throat, he ground out the words, "Bleed me," coupled with a command stare that told Jim Craik to get on with it! He could feel the evil humors circulating in his blood, affecting every part of his body, making him heavy and strained, blood rotten and useless. Drain it off and ease the pressure.
Not, actually, that he thought it would do much good. Doctors soothed more than they really helped. If they were caring, you felt better. Of course they did help sometimes, but he'd seen too many gut-shot solders die in agony while Craik watched, seen the benevolent pus that Craik sought in wounds and amputations turn into cascades that overwhelmed the patient.
Craik wiping the blade on a handkerchief, making the neat incision, blood running into his cup, ah…felt better already. Probably transitory, but welcome. He thought he was coming to the end and now, watching Jim wet his lips nervously, he thought the doctor was of the same opinion. He shut his eyes, suddenly desperately weak, felt he was whirling and whirling down into depths. He heard Martha's tremulous voice, realized Jim had stopped the blood, started to protest and was gone.
He'd had the key just before they'd awakened him, a grip on what it all meant. It had been oddly comforting. He'd been sitting at his camp desk with the long, white plume graceful in his hand, judgment taking hold with iron certainty.
He dug into his mind. He'd had hold of it there.…
Yes, yes, that was it! Alex insisting money is what powers any country; Jimmy leaping up in angry outrage. The fight wasn't about the bank or the bonds or any of the details. It was about who we were as a people. What did we care about, believe in?
Alex and most of his Federalist brethren wanted a tight, contained, carefully controlled government in the hands of the ruling few, everyone else taking orders. He would shape all policies to bind men of money power closer and hold little men in their places--limit their vote, reduce their capacity to rise, keep them subservient, make them glad to be of service at low wages to those who counted.
Jimmy and Tom wanted a diffuse government in which states were strong and the common man's voice ranked with that of the gentry. If the government were to be skewed, let it be toward the poor and the helpless.
Alex said Great Britain's system was the best in the world. Tom and Jimmy saw the British as oppressors and were sure Alex aimed at monarchy in America. That charge drove Alex wild. His slender face, handsome as a Greek statue, would go white and strained with ugly red blotches, all beauty vanished.
"Do you still not understand?" he cried. "We're bankrupt--no economy, no currency, no structure, no credit. We're the laughingstock of the commercial world. But I can give us structure, restore our credit, control inflation. Jimmy, I can put us on a par with any nation in the world."
"Nor do I doubt that," Jimmy said. "But, Alex, I think you understand finance too well and your fellow Americans too little."
"So you say, but what is there to understand? The common man is just that, common. He's a boor. Knows nothing. Captive of his emotions. Prey of demagogues. As witness the ear he gives all these dirty little Democratic rags attacking our financial reality."
Jimmy started to speak, but Alex shouted him down. "Captive of his emotions, sir! Swung by the last shout penetrating his piggy little brain. Of course he needs to be controlled, guided, shaped, held in line. He's a peasant! And peasants were made to be held in line, to touch their caps to their lords and ladies. This difference you see in Americans has about the width of an eyelash."
"You're wrong, Alex," Jimmy said. His smile was supremely confident, and it subtly ridiculed Hamilton. Alex caught it too, that flush riding up his cheeks again. "In fact, the common man is a lover of freedom. He possesses an innate wisdom, rough hewn at times but entirely real. He takes care of himself, he controls himself, his sense of right and wrong rings like a bell, he'll fight forever for his freedom. And he sees you canting government away from him--catering to the bosses, the money men, the merchants and owners. And sooner or later he'll make you pay, Alex."
The general had pushed back his chair. "That'll do, gentlemen," he'd said. Still, it had been illuminating and he was glad he'd let the argument rage, distressing as naked anger could be. He doubted Alex and the Federalists really wanted monarchy in America--the general had made that decision for them years before--but they certainly wanted the best people in charge and probably liked the idea of institutionalizing their role in a hereditary form, nobles in perpetuity. Once, much later, he challenged Alex to his face on this and Alex backed and filled, smiling boyishly, but he never denied it.
It wouldn't have mattered so much if this were just a cabinet quarrel, but in fact it swept across the country. The parties shaped ever more clearly around these opposite visions, newspapers hammered the issue, even the states split up, taking sides, New England strong for Federalism, South and West for the Democrats, middle states swinging. Federalists shouted that nay nation must be run by the nobility, call it what you like; Democrats denounced an elite rewarded at the common man's expense. The general had judged the party break to be beyond repair.
The image of an old soldier swapping his certificate for a sack of beans was darkly painful, but in the end he'd accepted Alex's plan because he'd seen no alternative; we would have no standing in the world till we could pay our bills. But an estrangement arose between him and the two Virginians. This hurt, especially with Jimmy. Tom was brilliant, but there was something foolish about him too. Jimmy was solid.
A dream seized him. He'd plunged into a lake, didn't know why. The water's warmth was comforting and he'd gone down and down in search of something, he wasn't sure what, until his breath began to fail and now he was fighting his way back to the surface, lungs bursting. He popped awake and heaved a great gasp that broke things open enough--
Craik bent over him. With candle and mirror he cast light into the tortured throat. Craik's face was strained; the general read fear. There were more men in the room. He recognized Dr. Brown from over at Port Tobacco, and Craik introduced a Dr. Dick, Elisha Dick, new young fellow from Alexandria, who bowed deeply. He'd just finished medical school at Edinburgh, well known as the best in the world, but he looked very young. Three doctors…he must be as ill as he felt. He let Craik depress his tongue while Brown held mirror and light and they all peered. He felt about like that heifer he'd been doctoring.
"Quinsy, I think," Craik said. Pus engulfing the tonsils. The general nodded: That's what it felt like. Brown agreed. The young fellow hesitated, then said, "With respect, it could be inflammation of the throat membranes." Craik grunted, which told the general all he needed to know about the young man. Edinburgh was fine, but the lines in Craik's face made the real diploma.
Martha wiped his face. He asked for the two wills in his desk. Her eyes widened and she started to object, but he gave her his command stare. One was out of date: Burn it. The other went into her closet. She said he'd soon be better, but he raised a hand: he knew he was in a long slide toward the end.
Craik bled him again, Martha watching in alarm. Not much blood came. Craik burned his neck with Spanish fly to bring blisters and draw blood from the throat. Fed him sage tea with vinegar, but his throat instantly closed and he was drowning until Craik lifted him. He fell back on the bed feeling more dead than alive; this was going to be harder than he'd supposed.
He spun off into blessed darkness, yet felt his mind was firing with its old force. Too late now to dream of the healing speech, but he didn't want to go into the dark night feeling his country was dying too. His brilliant young men had brought the issue to focus. Who are we? How will we define ourselves? Tightly held, narrowly based, men of wealth controling with lesser folk locked to place and class? Or open, fluid, moving, every man equal, with breaks as fair for the poor as for the wealthy, everyone limited only by his own capacities, free to be all that brains and grit could make him?
That was the quarrel out of which parties had grown. Now men seemed willing to war to the death over these matters. But how had we come to that? Eyes shut, motionless, taking shallow breaths, Martha's weight heavy on one side of the bed, he could hear them talking in low voices. But he held to the question--he must know!--and immediately saw how thoroughly the events of the last decade had pushed both sides toward extremes.
He remembered the day the news from France had burst--they were in New York, he and Martha still in the Os-good House on Franklin Square. There had been a clamor outside and he'd gone to a window to see shouting men running from the direction of the Battery. It was late fall and a light rain had kept up all day. An hour later Billy delivered a rain-spattered broadsheet headlined REVOLUTION IN FRANCE! the ink still wet. Commoners had taken over, all new laws proclaimed, the king acquiesces, crowds seize the Bastille, political prisoners stream to freedom. He remembered standing just inside the door, light pouring in from a high window, Billy pulling off his wet coat, and he'd thought instantly, this will be trouble.
It was happening too fast, the old thrown away too rapidly, wild mobs surging in the streets of Paris, and it was sure to get out of hand. Monarchies of Europe would resist it, and that could mean war and they would try to draw us in.…
Every ship brought fresh news. Americans took the French adventure as an extension of their own revolution. They thrilled to a glorious declaration of liberty, Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Crowds celebrated in American streets. Men wore the soft liberty caps affected in Paris, decorated their coats with tricolor cockades, sang French songs in theaters, dropped mister for citizen as a form of address. This enthusiasm swirling madly through the streets--he could feel it even as his stately carriage passed by--was infectious but a little frightening too. Everything seemed unstable.
Jefferson had been beside himself with joyous approval and infuriatingly patronizing to boot. On the basis of his ambassadorial years he explained it in moralizing little analogies for America, showing that the gentry should look for no special favors. When French affairs did darken, Tom seemed to see them as insignificant, the important thing being that the French movement stood for liberty.
The general had grown steadily more concerned. French radicals executed the king and scores of nobles, bloody blade clattering, heads tumbling to the basket. The mad zealot Robespierre opened a reign of terror that killed thousands; bodies must have been stacked like cordwood in France from the sound of things.
Americans enthused over revolutionary ideals as they lamented the excesses. It puzzled the general that events abroad that really were none of our business should so profoundly foundly affect life here. Both sides were ready to fight. Democrats said all that mattered was that monarchy had been vanquished and democracy was on the march. Federalists said that France proved that democracy given free rein must destroy itself and all around it. Let Democrats push Federalists aside in America and next thing you know the best people would be dangling from trees.
Sure enough, war did flame in Europe. Surrounding monarchies attacked the revolution, which responded with evangelical fervor. Then Britain jumped in against France and, just as Washington had expected, both sides turned on the little United States. It had infuriated him then; and sick as he was, it still did, breath going short at the thought. Man abused you, you'd like to take a stick and break some heads. Both abused us, stopping our ships, seizing our cargoes, the British impressing our seamen, each trying to force us into a reluctant alliance.
The general had hoped this pressure would draw our own warring sides together, but no--the split widened. Never mind Robespierre's excesses, Democrats said, the French were fighting to preserve democracy against monarchial tyrants, and a fellow democracy must support them. Federalists called American Democrats slaves to the French, who would make us an overseas department of France. Rather, Democrats shouted, Federalists were using the war as excuse to tuck America under the wing of the British monarchy. At least, though, Tom quiet talking about the nobility of the French after the Terror took hold.
"Tell me," the general remembered crying in exasperation one day, this when the secretary of the treasury and the secretary of state had stopped speaking, "do you really believe these extremes you're prating?" And both had nodded.
Papers had gone to new extremes. Congress rocked with charge and countercharge. Orators struck mighty blows for the British on one corners, for the French on the next. Some taverns were Federalists and some were Democratic, and it was as good as a man's life to go in the wrong one. In Boston a mob tarred and feathered a fellow who insisted on wearing a cockade and singing "La Marseillaise," the new French revolutionary song.
His eyes popped open. Someone had thrust a knife down his throat, or so it felt. There was haze in front of his eyes and then his vision cleared and he saw Billy Lee standing by his bed. Billy was crying, tears coursing unguarded down his cheeks. The general put up a hand and Billy took it and held it a moment. Then Washington's throat closed and he choked for air, his body bucking, and Craik was at his side holding him, and Martha was leading Billy away.
When he could breathe again, rasping, shuddering breaths, he told Craik to bleed him once more. The young doctor, Elisha Dick raised a hand as if to protest, but Craik ignored him. The old doc milked the arm but almost no blood came and no relief. The general gasped, desperately sucking wind. The young fellow said something.
"He says your throat may close completely," Craik whispered. "Wants to try something new from Edinburgh. Open your windpipe below your throat so you can breathe through the opening."
The general was dubious. Speaking was torture. "Wants to cut me?"
"Yes, Sir. Cuts into the trachea. Tracheotomy, he calls it. Says they preach it at Edin--"
"Has he done one?"
"No, sir, but he knows how. He says."
"Come on, Jim." The fear was back in his old friend's face and he whispered, his throat tearing. "Do we or don't we?"
Long silence. Jim sighed and shook his head. "I'm scared," he said.
That settled it. He didn't look at the young doctor. He took Craik's hand. "I die hard," he said, "but I'm not afraid to go. My breath cannot last long."
His secretary, Tobias Lear, knelt by the bed and took his hand. "I am just going." The general forced out the words. "Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days." Lear, weeping, nodded.
"Do you understand?" Even now, it was the voice of command.
He looked around for Martha. She came and sat on the bed. She held his hand in both of hers and after a while she leaned close and kissed him. He drifted away, conscious of her hand and her presence, drifting down and down into sleep, going away.
Dreams, flashing lights, but it was too late; he was hurrying now. Too late to grasp all the troubles, and did they really matter? The Whiskey Rebellion, those West Pennsylvania farmers bloodily protesting a tax.…He'd thought for a while there that scenes of France were to be replayed, but it had all passed. Finished his second term, the Democratic papers denouncing him in the vilest terms--too late to horsewhip an editor, but it didn't matter now--and John Adams had taken over.
More trouble with France, they treating us with vast contempt for no reason he could see, but neither was that cause for war.…But Alex wanted war, wanted t focus France as the enemy, wanted to link with Britain just as Jimmy had always said. That Jimmy…there was a man, frail in body, weak in health, iron in mind and courage and force of personality. And good John Adams resisted the Federalist clamor for war, may God bless him in heaven, the country more shredded than ever.…
And he was leaving, questions unanswered.…
Trust the honest heart of the common man. Only truly wise thing he'd ever heard Thomas Jefferson say. But maybe you only had to say one truly wise thing to be a great man. And maybe it contained the answer for which his soul was parched.
And that talisman memory returned…men you could trust passing in column, going to battle. It was before Trenton, he now remembered, dusk and already cold, their breath frosting in the air. They'd marched past, rifles in hand, slung haversacks nearly empty. He remembered those empty sacks. They were hungry, and they'd looked at him with level eyes, strong men, sensible, the taste of independence in their mouths, men you could trust to carry a battle, to make a country, to cut through the folderol of political clamor and do the right thing. Men of pride, of tradition; men who knew who they were. They'd passed in a long, single line, given him that appraising glance, and they'd nodded. Just nodded.
Said, Evening, Ginral. How do. Ginral?
He was leaving the country in good hands.
Copyright © 2000 by David Nevin