A View From Glenn Hill: Standing together, then and now

Renowned sculptor Gifford Proctor conceived Washington at Valley Forge as fascist forces were wreaking destruction in Germany and Italy while he was in Rome pursuing his studies. Proctor wanted to create an image that would signify both the power of freedom and the persistence required to achieve and sustain it. He chose for his image Washington in that bitter winter during which British troops, already occupying both New York City and Philadelphia, were celebrating the expected demise of the revolution.

With two thousand of his troops lost to disease, frostbite and starvation at Valley Forge, Washington had every reason to give up, yet he did not. Gifford’s statue captures that sense of his strength in perseverance perfectly. He was “a general who won a war of attrition with a world power by never surrendering.”  

Perseverance of a different sort has brought this statue to its happy new home as the centerpiece of the lobby of Middlebrook School’s auditorium. It fits perfectly there as an inspiration for our middle school students as they study this formative period that made us Americans and also for all who visit there, as for the stirring Veterans Day observances presented by Middlebrook students last week.

Much of that perseverance was on Proctor’s part as he modeled and remodeled the statue; other parts were played by Sylvia Keiser as she assisted Proctor in his work, by the Keiser and Proctor families as they saw that the work was preserved, and by Bill and Kathleen Brennan who moved forward persistently to see it properly housed at Middlebrook at no cost to our town.

It is said that each generation experiences George Washington anew. Some saw him as a remote figure who failed in battle more than he succeeded. Other generations rightly concentrated on his slaveholding and ended their inquiry there. But more recent scholarship has brought back into sharp focus the remarkable collection of circumstances in our nation’s founding for which Washington was the “but for” condition: but for him, our nation would not have been.

This recent scholarship includes Prof. Edward Larson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Return of George Washington. Larson focuses on Washington’s central role during the period 1783 to 1789 in seeing that the United States came into existence out of a fractious group of fiercely independent states. Without Washington’s vision and influence and his universally acknowledged high character, the United States as we now know it might well never have come into being.

Larson states, “Since everyone presumed that Washington would become the new government’s first executive, no one could conceive of the position without thinking about him in it. … Faith in his virtue made [the delegates to the Constitutional Convention] more open to strengthening the office.” The newspapers of the day also “carried endless references to Washington’s central role at the Convention.”

And during the state-by-state ratification process thereafter, “available evidence points towards the key role played by Washington’s name in each state.” Washington coordinated strategy in the ratification process among principal proponents in each state and across the states. “All of Washington’s actions can most easily be seen as the efforts of a determined leader trying to achieve meaningful consensus.” Afterwards, Washington himself reflected on the process as “a new phenomenon in the political and moral world, and an astonishing victory gained by enlightened reason over brutal force.”

There is another “but-for” in our nation’s founding: the role of the French as our friends and allies. From Lafayette’s role as one of Washington’s most trusted generals during the Revolutionary War continuing in their extensive correspondence during the process of constitutional adoption thereafter, to the crucial role of the French fleet and troops in the victory at Yorktown, French and Americans have repeatedly stood side-by-side in war and peace.

In the overwhelmingly tragic circumstances of a week ago in Paris, it was especially good that we came together as a town this past Sunday for the presentation at the Clune Center by the New Haven Symphony of Brothers in Arts. Composed by Chris Brubeck and Guillaume Saint-James, it is a magnificent work in eight movements with accompanying video focused on World War II in Europe and especially on the liberation of Paris.

Performing with the orchestra were Brubeck on trombone and piano, Saint-James on saxophone, and a half-dozen other remarkable French jazz musicians and vocalists.  The result brought tears to the eyes of many as scenes of grievous loss, bitter fighting, and somber remembrance alternated with joyous celebration of liberation and the brotherhood of working together to defeat monstrous Nazi evil that threatened to destroy the world.

As this stunning work so vividly reminds us, we stand together once again, shoulder-to-shoulder, facing another monstrous evil with renewed appreciation for the brotherhood we have so long shared and for which we are so thankful.