I am reading a nice new vampire novel, The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, and it is the best I have read in a while, so far (I reached page 120 last night). It is a bit wordier, with unnecessary descriptions, than I like, but I know other readers like that sort of thing, so I skim when necessary to keep my brain alert. The central characters are history professors. The theme is that the past holds horrors, and that investigating that past may provide clues to the horrors of the present. It is a good theme.
Doubtless he did not invent the idea, but Plutarch is noted for comparing one political figure against another in his Lives of Illustrious Men (better known as Parallel Lives). Lysander compared to Sylla; Pompey compared to Agesilaus; often a Greek compared to a Roman. For centuries Plutarch was required reading for educated Europeans. Unfortunately he has not been required reading for the latest round of Presidents of the United States.
The favored person of modern times to compare politicians to is Adolf Hitler. This is usually more to label a politician as someone you don't like than to do a serious comparison. In the United States today political parties and their most rabid partisans hold any President of the opposite party in absolute contempt. President Clinton was hated for being too liberal when in fact he was the most right-wing President from the Democratic Party since Woodrow Wilson. My lefty Democratic Party friends have convinced themselves that George W. Bush is the worst American president ever elected and comparing him to Hitler is entirely appropriate. This is because they are emotional and ignorant of history. I don't like the politics of George W. Bush, but he is no Hitler.
And I don't think any American President, fairly assessed as a political leader, can make a sensible comparison with Dracula, the most Catholic former Prince of Walachia, also known as Vlad the Impaler. Except maybe George Washington. And maybe Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party. Well, maybe General Grant, known to some people as "The Butcher."
First, in case you have forgotten, Vlad the Impaler. At that time, the mid-1400's, the Turks were the world's great power. Europe feared them. Their armies were better-organized and had better weapons than those of Europe. They had taken over the south-east corner of Europe and wanted more. Vladimir was inducted into a Catholic group called the Order of the Dragon and sent to Walachia (right next to Transylvania) to fight the Turks. First he put his own house in order: he impaled anyone who showed the least bit of disagreement with him. In battle he put the fear of the Lord Jesus Christ into the Turks. We would probably all be in the peaceful brotherhood of Islam today if it were not for Vlad. By the time he died in battle the Turks were getting soft and concentrated more on extracting tribute from their extensive line of subjects rather than fighting crazy Christians leading suicide charges. [See also Sixteenth Amendment]
So was Adolf Hitler some light weight? Depends on how you weigh things. Like Vlad the Impaler, Hitler was a Catholic. His mission was to stop the advance of Godless Communism. I know of no instance in which Hitler was personally cruel. Even though he was known for flying into rages, his abuses were verbal. But he sat at the head of a state that was far more powerful than Walachia had been. Germany was an industrial state; Hitler's wishes were carried out on a massive scale. Concentration camps supplied cheap labor and later turned into extermination camps. In Russia (then the USSR) alone ten million civilians died and ten million Russian soldiers died pushing back Hitler's mechanized armies.
So for magnitude Hitler is the champ; only in personal cruelty and personal bravery could Vlad hold up in a comparison.
What about George Washington? Hey, wait a minute, wasn't he the founder of our Country? Wasn't he a good guy?
Note that I have not said anything good about Hitler or Vlad. In a longer work listing their good deeds and qualities would be appropriate. Of course if you consider Catholicism good then both of them might seem blessed. Given that Vlad, or Dracula, is known to have appeared to people after his death, veritable proof of resurrection, you would think they would have made him into a Saint.
You may not be able to think of anything Hitler or Vlad did that was good, but you know some good things about George Washington. Some of them are even true. But in comparing him to Vlad the Impaler and Adolph Hitler, we must seek out his evil side.
Which is not too hard to find if you have a good heart and a few hours for research. George showed a penchant for cruelty fairly early on. Of course he grew up in a cruel environment, that of the ruling class of Virginia, men who owned slaves. The cruelty of the destruction of families in Africa was of no consequence to these men; out of site, out of mind. What was of consequence was Native American Indian land, which had to be taken by force. George Washington made his mark as a soldier, officer really, in wars to kill Indians. In his diary he records the day to day humdrum and occasional hot fighting. He also records how his men killed a French soldier and scalped him. Washington was pleased to ask the Legislature of Virginia if he could not have the same bounty for the Frenchman's scalp as for an Indian one. [And why are we more appalled by that than by the ordinary practice of Virginia of paying a bounty for Indian scalps?]
Washington was supportive of the Committees of Correspondence that led eventually to the American Revolution. That is usually listed in the "good" column. But only because a great deal of trouble has been take to keep us from knowing about the Somerset [or Somersett] Case. This case, which declared slavery illegal on English soil, took place in 1772. Lawyers in Virginia saw it might end slavery in the British Empire (they were wrong, at least in the short run) and set up the Committees of Correspondence. While the causes of the American Revolution were complex, for Washington, Jefferson and their friends they were fairly simple. The Revolution was about slavery; liberty was the liberty to own slaves. Everything else was glossy propaganda.
Many scholars and patriots will take issue with that, but consider what followed. Slavery was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, one that George Washington approved of and became the first President under.
But there is more. The Revolutionary War is presented as glorious; the rule of England as tyranny. But those who fight wars always have excuses. Vlad the Impaler did not want to become a Moslem or underling of the Sultan of Turkey. Hitler did not want Germany to be a second-rate nation. Was Independence for the American Colonies really worth killing a bunch of English soldiers and American loyalists? Would not change have come over time through less violent methods?
George Washington was a violent man who had no problem using violence to get what he wanted. If his violence was not on the same scale as Hitler's, it was not for want of will. Like Vlad the Impaler, it was for lack of resources. As the United States of America gained resources George Washington's successors killed Indians and then anyone else who thwarted their aims.
As to personal cruelty, I suspect, but can't be certain, that if George Washington had impaled his enemies on the White House lawn we would have heard about it. But General Washington did have deserters from his army shot. Was that necessary or cruel?
The cruelest thing Washington did was at Yorktown. The British army had freed a large numbers of American slaves. Among them were some that "belonged" to Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence. Washington accepted the slaves back into slavery and handed them over to their "owners," including Thomas Jefferson.
Only because Washington, for all his faults, did not make himself dictator, but instead helped establish a republican system, can I rate him as a better man than Vlad the Impaler or Adolf Hitler.
III Publishing home