George Will recently suggested that, rather than celebrating some
vague “Presidents’ Day” holiday, we ought to go back to emphasizing the
birthdays of Washington and Lincoln.
I’d like to second the motion. To forget the special recognition of Washington and Lincoln is like a husband forgetting an anniversary: not necessarily fatal, but bad for the health of a relationship.
It’s especially important for us to remember Washington, the key figure in establishing the American republic.
We sometimes forget that, until the advent of America, most thinkers considered it impossible for people to rule themselves. Attempts at self-government, so they thought, would lead, first to anarchy, then to tyranny.
And, most of the time, attempts at self-rule do in fact end in anarchy and tyranny. Look at France in 1789. Russia in 1917. Weimar Germany. Pre-war Japan.
So why was America able to do what these other nations could not do?
Because our first president was a man who could be trusted with power, a man that power did not corrupt, even in the midst of a crisis.
1783. The Revolution was winding down. The Continental Congress wanted to disband the army–without paying the soldiers, some of whom were owed as much as seven years back pay. Congress had also reneged on its debts to some of the countries wealthiest men. Guided by Alexander Hamilton, the financiers and the soldiers came up with a plan: stage a coup and make Washington the head of government. And if Washington refused to take part: well then, the military would still take over.
Washington did more than simply refuse to take part in the coup. He stood up to his troops, recalled them to their duty, and left them with tears in their eyes--and their patriotism renewed.
As president too, Washington was a model of the proper and restrained use of executive power. He vetoed legislation he liked–because he felt that it exceeded the limits the Constitution placed on federal authority. And he signed into law legislation he didn’t like–because he believed the president should respect the constitutional authority of congress.
The French Ambassador to the United States, Edmond Genet, tried ceaselessly to destroy Washington, libeling the president in newspaper article after article and conspiring with Secretary of State Jefferson and other Republican leaders to undermine Washington’s foreign policy. Washington had every reason to hate the man. Yet when Genet lost his position and was recalled to France, Washington granted him asylum, more than likely saving him from the guillotine.
On the other hand, when evidence emerged that one of Washington’s closest friends and political allies was involved in wrongdoing, Washington confronted him directly with the evidence and insisted on a thorough accounting.
At the end of his presidency, Washington was exhausted. He had sacrificed his health and most of his personal fortune in service to the country. He had had to endure a series of vicious and libelous attacks from the newspapers and from rival political figures. In a rare moment of self-pity, he composed a justifiably bitter final speech.
He never gave it.
Instead, with the help of Alexander Hamilton, he came up with something completely different, what came to be known as Washington’s Farewell Address–one of the finest inspirational messages in all of American politics.
Washington left a lasting legacy. His example helped determine what the nation expected of its presidents–and what presidents expected of themselves.
With only a few exceptions, subsequent presidents, even the most mediocre, have tried to live up to Washington’s example, and almost invariably the men we have elected turned out better than we had any right to expect.
George Washington. The indispensable man. The Father of his country. First in war. First in peace. And, if we want to keep our liberty, it’s essential that he remain first in the hearts and minds of his countrymen.