I have been a little lax in keeping up with the fiction writing recently, so it’s about time for a new piece. Again based on a Chuck Wendig challenge, this time on the theme of a ‘journey’. I interpreted that as an invitation to try to read the mind of a dead person (as an historian, it’s basically what I do anyway) on a fairly short physical journey, but perhaps a very long metaphorical one.
Crossing the Bay
It was a chilly morning and still quiet, the silence only disturbed by the small waves washing against the side of the barge as it glided across the bay. George strained to catch a glimpse of the city they were heading towards, but thin strands of the morning fog still drifted over the bay and besides, his eyesight was not what it used to be.
“Mr. Humphreys,” he asked his private secretary and steadfast companion for the last ten years, “can you spot the city?”
“Not as yet,” Humphreys replied, “but I think I see some ships in the roads. We should be there in an hour or so.”
His last hour as a private individual for years to come, George reflected with some regrets, or perhaps even the rest of his life; although in truth, he had not been a completely private individual for the last fifteen years or so. He had emerged from the chaos of the was as a national hero, and whether he had wanted it or not, the country had continued to look to his leadership – except, he thought with some bitterness, when it came to paying pensions and reparations to his soldiers – so when a Mr. Thornton had arrived at his front door with the letter that officially congratulated him on his election, it had almost been a formality.
It was all a great honour, of course, but one that George was still ambivalent about. He was not getting any younger – he had turned fifty-seven the month before – and in his quiet moments, he had dared to entertain a vain hope of getting to spend his remaining years in quiet retirement on his estate. There were so many things he was looking forward to do; plan out the field rotations, experiment with new varieties of crops, write books on surveying and long letters exploring the advantages of different species of cattle.
He had already sacrificed so much for the sake of his country, for the sake of the republic, and he did not think it unreasonable that he would want some peace and quiet after so many years and the hardships he had suffered. But the republic was a harsh mistress, who now required still greater sacrifices from him, and when she called, he would not allow himself to refuse. So things had turned out differently.
Even then, it was more than a little ironic that even though so many compared him to Cincinnatus, the Good Roman who put down his sword and his positions to return home and till his fields, he himself would not even be allowed to enjoy that small luxury, that reward. On the contrary, the sword and the fasces were practically being forced back into his hand.
As the barge made its way across the bay, many more boats joined in from all sides to escort it until they made up an entire water-borne procession. The almost monarchial pomposity and circumstance of it all sat poorly with George’s republican sensibilities, and his distaste only grew when several series of thirteen gunshots thundered across the water from the several warships moored in the harbour, saluting their arrival. First the Spaniard Galveston and the North Carolina, then the city fortifications joining in until the echoes rolled back and forth for what seemed like an eternity.
Trying to distract himself, George pointed over to the mouth of the river that bounded the city on its eastern side.
“That was where we retreated from the British after the Battle of Brooklyn,” he said to his secretary. “Brought the whole army across, night after August 27th.”
“I remember hearing about that,” Humphreys replied. “We were still in Connecticut at the time. Hard to believe that was thirteen years ago.”
Had it been thirteen years? So much had happened since then, it rather seemed like a lifetime ago. George caught himself thinking that things had seemed simpler then; that had been a difficult, even a desperate time – but still…
Finally, the barge arrived at the pier, and followed by Mr. Humpreys and the rest of their party, George debarked to face the vast crowd of thousands that had gathered on the waterfront to greet him and now cheered and hollered at his arrival, waving flags, banners and hats in the air, and accompanied by tolling bells and more of those damned gun salutes.
Again he reminded himself that the excitement was as much to celebrate his position and his reputation as for him personally. Indeed, these people, and others like them, had elected him to the highest office in the new republic. But was it really a man they wanted, or an icon? His countrymen were a fractious people, and many hoped that unite a new country that threatened to come apart at the seams even before it had been properly established. But how many others were actually wishing that he would prove a demigod rather than a man, how many were secretly hoping that he could wave his hand and just banish all of their problems as if by magic? If any did, and he suspected there were more than a few, they would be disappointed.
Meanwhile, George Clinton, the rotund Governor of New York was advancing towards them, smiling amicably. Even though they had been political opponents recently, especially when Clinton had opposed the Constitution less than a year earlier, they were also old friends, and it was a pleasure to throw some glamour over him and his city through this occasion.
“President Washington. Words cannot express how honoured I am to welcome you to New York,” Clinton said and extended his hand.
Dismissing his dark thoughts, George Washington gravely took the Governor’s offered hand and shook it firmly while the cheers of the crowd rose to new heights. If being an icon was what the new country demanded of him, then by God he would strive to become the best icon history had ever seen.
Historical postscript: The event described here is the arrival of President-Elect George Washington in New York on April 23, 1789, where his first inauguration would take place the week after. The impression one gets from his letters is that Washington was notoriously reluctant to return to public service after some years in retirement following the Revolutionary War, not to mention accepting the highest office in the republic and the responsibilities that followed with it. Whether he actually meant that, or it was just false humility is of course as always up for debate, but the case for his sincerity is persuasive. So consider this an attempt to imagine some of the thoughts that might go through the head of a man who willingly or not has been turned into an icon.
Reading for context and extra credits:
First inauguration of George Washington
Battle of Brooklyn (or more commonly ‘of Long Island’)
Governor George Clinton
Colonel David Humpreys