Mary Mostert
February 11, 2004
George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush, and anti-war movements
By Mary Mostert

In February we celebrate the birthdays of two of America's great war presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. I find that many, if not most, Americans are unaware of the grief caused both Washington and Lincoln by anti-war activists and political opponents in both the Revolution and the Civil War. Lack of support for war in America is not exactly a new thing.

In fact, the anti-war faction among the colonists in the 1770s almost destroyed the move towards independence from King George III. Six weeks after the Declaration of Independence was signed, British Admiral Richard Howe thought he had Washington's 9000 man army trapped on Long Island and was merely waiting for a sudden heavy fog to clear to move in to destroy the American rebels. Howe was 500 yards away from the Americans, who were surrounded on three sides, with their backs to the East River.

The great American writer Washington Irving wrote of that night, in his 5 volume biography of George Washington, "The fog which prevailed all this time, seemed almost Providential. While it hung over Long Island, and concealed the movements of the Americans, the atmosphere was clear on the New York side of the river. The adverse wind, too, died away, the river became so smooth that the row-boats could be laden almost to the gunwale; and a favoring breeze sprang up for the sail-boats."

Under the cover of night and the fog, Washington began slowly, quietly sending his men to rowboats, commandeered by Col. John Glover, commander of the 1300 experienced seaman of the 14th Massachusetts Marblehead regiment that had arrived the day before. Near the ferry crossing, as the men began to escape Howe's trap, a Mrs. Rapelye, who lived nearby, saw the first of Washington's troops leave the island. Washington had ordered Rapelye's husband, a British sympathizer, to be removed from the area for security reasons. Mrs. Rapelye immediately sent her black servant to warn the British that the wily George Washington was about to escape.

The servant got past the American sentinels and tried to give the message to the German mercenaries under Howe, who could not understand what he was saying. The Germans put him under guard as a "suspicious person" where he remained until an officer visited the post early the next morning. The horrified British officer and his men rushed to the ferry crossing to see the last of Washington's men safely rowing some distance from shore and Washington had taken ALL the rowboats on Long Island.

Approximately two-thirds of New York City's residents were British sympathizers but Washington hoped that he could increase his army by recruiting patriots there and later in New Jersey where there also were many anti-war British sympathizers.

By November 1776, Washington had not been able to add more than a few men to his ranks, the one-year enlistments the Continental Congress insisted upon (because they did not want a "standing army") would expire December 31st leaving Washington with a force of less than 2000 men and even those were lacking property equipment, gun powder and transportation.

A disappointed and exasperated Washington wrote to his brother:

    "I am wearied almost to death with the retrograde (backward moving) motions of things, and I solemnly protest that a pecuniary (monetary) reward of 20,000 a year would not induce me to undergo what I do; and after all, perhaps, to lose my character as it is impossible under such a variety of distressing circumstances to conduct matters agreeably to public expectation..."

However, Washington never publicly voiced his discouragements and disappointment with the people he was risking everything to try to help. Abraham Lincoln got so much hostile criticism that he didn't think he would be renominated by the Republican party, much less elected if he were. In 1860, there were 31.4 million people (compared with today's 281 million people.)

Today the anti-war crowd is calling for impeachment or at a minimum replacing George W. Bush because 500 Americans out of a population of 281 million have died liberating nearly 50 million Afghans and Iraqis. In 1860 there were 31.4 million people, 558,052 of whom were killed in the Civil War to save the Union. As a bonus, it also freed the slaves.

Both Abraham Lincoln and George W. Bush were presented unexpected difficulties soon after their inaugurations. When Lincoln was sworn in on March 4, 1861, most of the 11 Southern States that made up the Confederacy had already seceded from the Union. A month later, a federal military post, Fort Sumter in South Carolina, was seized by the Southerners and Lincoln ordered troops into the State. Lincoln didn't even inform the Congress, much less ask them to vote on the issue. America, he believe, had been attacked and as commander in chief of the armed services it was his responsibility to respond.

When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the nation's military headquarters, the Pentagon, on September 11, 2001, George W. Bush reacted pretty much as Lincoln did when Fort Sumter was attacked. Bush believed that as commander in chief he had a responsibility to search out the attackers and prevent any future attacks wherever in the world they happen to be or to have supporters.

One reader wrote me recently succinctly outlining her opposition to George W. Bush. She opposes his:

  1. Signing a massive education bill (No Child Left Behind)

  2. Signing a bill to institute tariffs in favor of the steel industry.

  3. Signing a farm-subsidy bill while claiming advocacy of smaller government.

  4. Signing a Medicare "reform" bill ...a vast new entitlement "not wanted and not needed"

  5. Proposing a bill to reform immigration laws she believes is an "amnesty" program.

In 1864, a presidential election year, the arguments were pretty much the same as they are shaping up to be in 2004 States rights versus federal action and economic problems. The Republican Congress during the Lincoln administration had:

  1. approved bills setting high tariffs,

  2. authorizing the construction of a transcontinental railroad,

  3. underwriting the construction of state institutions of higher education,

  4. consolidating the nation's monetary structures.

But, of course, in 1864 the "big issue" was the war. The Democrats nominated General George McClellan, who had been relieved of his duties by Lincoln early in the war because he wasn't accomplishing much. McClellan ran on a platform calling Lincoln a "social tyrant" and calling the Emancipation Proclamation "a radical step that didn't address the problems inherent in freeing thousands of slaves."

Today, almost nobody remembers what that Democrat George McClellan said in the presidential campaign of 1864. They do remember Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his Gettysburg address which said something about resolving that "these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Future generations may remember George W. Bush as the president who extended that notion to millions in other parts of the world.

© Mary Mostert

Comments feature added August 14, 2011

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Mary Mostert

Mary Mostert is a nationally-respected political writer. She was one of the first female political commentators to be published in a major metropolitan newspaper in the 1960s... (more)


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