George Washington, Feb. 22, 1732 – Dec. 14, 1799

I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.

Government is not reason; it is not eloquent; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master.

I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.

—George Washington (various sources)
 

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George Washington seems a strange choice for this series, which is (after all) about those forgotten greats. How can we include a figure so well known, so omnipresent, and so publicly venerated as George Washington: Founder of the Country, First President, First in Hearts of His Countrymen, etc.?

But fame is as a great a peril as obscurity if our goal is to remember the man and not the legend. And Washington is great precisely because he was a man—a man of his time and class—and not a myth. He was not the flawless saint of the classic “cherry tree” story. He deceived others from time to time (though perhaps only after deceiving himself). He was, at times, guilty of poor judgment, of jealousy, of passionate anger, of greed for wealth that lead to involvement with speculative schemes.

And for all his modest demurements, and socially correct (for the time) public rejections of ambition, he was certainly an ambitious man. One who took considerable pride in the good name he had won through his deeds, and one who could be jealous of his perquisites when challenged.

Indeed, that very ambition is one of the great things about Washington. He was a man who, in Britain, would have been doomed to obscurity by his relatively low birth. At best he might have risen to a modest career in the military, and perhaps eventually earned a minor peerage. But certainly he would not have risen to be ranked among the wealthiest men in his nation, nor risen to a role not only on par with the Prime Minster’s but above it in every way. But in America, his talent for being in the right place, at the right time, with the right plan; his noble good looks and regal bearing; and his upright moral character and sheer persistence allowed him to climb steadily up the ranks of society.

And so this, above everything else, makes Washington worthy of our praise: that after he had risen to the top of the heap, after his enemies domestic and foreign had been vanquished, when he was not only handed the laurel of victory but offered the imperial scepter, then he demurred. He who could have been King chose instead to be President.

And with a firm understanding that everything he did would be immortalized, and that his slightest act might become precedent for the office he held, this very ambitious, talented, and passionate man became the very model of restraint. A man who had bent the efforts of long years to rising in wealth and status now became almost passive, in order to ensure that nothing extravagant or unnecessary would attach to the office he was establishing each day by his actions.

This is not to say that he did not act, he did, and with force, when he felt it necessary. But he realized just how fragile the new nation was, and how fragile its rule of law was. If its first President had been a bad President, all might have been lost. Just as Pompey and Cesear had turned the offices of consul, dictator, and imperator into the trappings of tyranny, Washington could easily have hijacked the Republic and made it his. Not only be the crude method of being declared King, but by subtler methods: undermining Congress through direct appeal, having political enemies quietly eliminated, running for re-election until dying in office.

Any of those methods might have strangled the United States before it grew strong enough to survive them. And Washington understood this deeply, and bent all his intellect and will to ensuring that it did not happen. And he crowned those efforts with his greatest act: voluntarily stepping down and choosing not to run for election, and then lawfully handing over the office to a man who had publicly vilified his policies and privately vilified him. And then he took up station quietly on his farm and refused, largely, to engage in political debate for the remaining years of his life.

George Washington did many great things for this nation, and made many wise pronouncements about matters foreign and domestic. He was a force for moderation between extremes and for patriotism before party loyalty. He would have despised any notion that a man’s political affiliation should be more important than his principles or character. He crafted a foreign policy that sought, and ensured peace for a critical few decades as the country grew. He, and his administration, built many institutions that endure to this day, and without which we cannot imagine the nation.

But none of those were his greatest gift to the United States. His greatest gift was the incredible restraint which enabled him to do much, but not too much. To make sure that the nation would be shaped in We the people’s image and not simply George Washington’s image. And for that, we owe him eternal gratitude.

With due humility, I will take issue with one wise counsel given by President Washington:

We ought not to look back, unless it is to derive useful lessons from past errors and for the purpose of profiting by dear bought experience.

I propose that there is another reason to look back, as good as these: to celebrate. Not to dwell in the past at the expense of the future, but to remember past victories as well as past defeats, and past wisdom as well as past error. In that spirit, let us remember our First President, who is truly worthy to be First in the Hearts of his Countrymen!

Happy Presidents Day Everyone!
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