The First George.W.
George Washington was born 273 years ago today in the British colony of Virginia. At his death in 1799, after an active life as soldier, surveyor, planter, politician, revolutionary, and first Chief Executive of the greatest republic since Rome, he was widely regarded as the greatest man of his time. And although he was once routinely voted the 'best' president by Presidential scholars, recent surveys of the public unaccoutably have demoted him. Very few average Americans, one would venture to guess, would be able to give a cogent reason why.
Perhaps this is simply a further example of our dismal public education, but one may confidently surmise that in this particular case it is also due to the man himself, to the unique attributes that made George Washington great, and the unfortunate disconnect to modern sensibilities. Stoic courage, noble patriotism, moderation, discreet politeness, and a regard for the precedent—setting responsibilities of our actions are not the stuff of heroes in the Age of Clinton.
That his birthday, long celebrated by the nation, has been subsumed in a vapid and dreary President's Day tells one plenty. In the halls of Congress and in the pages of the New York Times American history is to be discussed only as a litany of exploitation and cruelty, the necessary prelude to eventual apologies and reparations, to be sure. But beyond the embarrassment of a holiday honoring the birth of a white male slave—owner (for heaven's sake!), is the genuine dislike of someone who embodies virtue as understood until only recently. Washington is boring. He is stiff. He takes himself too seriously. Three modern Cardinal Sins.
Washington, of course, was neither boring nor stiff. Regarded by contemporaries as one of the most charismatic of men, physically imposing, he was an accomplished horseman, a graceful dancer, a great raconteur over the raised glass of Madeira, which he consumed prodigiously, and a noted flirt. In his youth he fell in love with the wife of a friend and neighbor. His headstrong and passionate ambition for martial glory was disastrously and humiliatingly denied early in his career by defeat in battle at the hands of the French and Indians in the woods of Pennsylvania. Always aware of the importance of status and property, he married a rich widow, and although proving a true love match over time, the marriage conveniently mixed love with financial gain. Throughout his life he was engaged in land and development schemes of Trump—like dimensions. To those journalists energetic enough to seek it out, truly a life worth the cover of People magazine, or at least a guest spot on Oprah.
Strangely enough, the reluctance to study and honor the life of Washington is not related to his faults but rather to his merits. The very fact that he overcame his limitations, fought his passionate urges, controlled his volcanic temper, sought moderate agreement in the midst of truly revolutionary turmoil is what is truly distasteful to the modern mind. To Washington character mattered, in fact, it was everything. He did indeed take himself very seriously.
The tragedy of neglecting and disparaging Washington is not only that of the continuing cultural debasement and reduced national civic and personal standards but also, and perhaps most importantly, the rejection of valuable experience and hard—earned wisdom. The study of Washington, his person and his time, gives invaluable insight into the ongoing challenges facing the country.
It cannot be said too often. Condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past is the fate of those ignorant of history.
Aside from his role as Revolutionary General and his critical importance at the Constitutional Convention, his conduct as first Chief Executive sets the gold standard for proper presidential leadership. His 'legacy' cries out with the relevance of this morning's newspaper.
As President he did not infringe upon the policy—making powers bestowed upon Congress by the Constitution. He permitted his cabinet members to act independently and with authority. He sought the 'best and the brightest' of his time, men like Jefferson and Hamilton, despite their personal animosity, to staff his administration. He urged against excessive and destructive party spirit and disdained the attempts to create geographical impediments to national unity. He acted, always, with a keen appreciation of how his example would affect the course of future generations. And in his parting farewell address, he warned against foreign wars and the dangers of 'entangling alliances.'
Amidst a remarkable crowd of Founding Fathers, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Jay, Madison, Hamilton, Washington stood apart, a giant among giants. All agreed in his preeminence. His biographer James Thomas Flexner, after four volumes and twenty years of research and labor, labeled him finally the 'Indispensable Man.' As 21st Century sophisticates we dispense with him to our shame,—— and peril.
Andrew Sumereau is a writer residing in East Stroudsburg, PA