Rediscovering the Founding Father
Snow is more important in Washington than either George Washington or Abraham Lincoln. We close our schools for the first few flakes of snow, but the only recognition George and Honest Abe get is one joint holiday called “Presidents’ Day.”
This holiday on the third Monday in February might as well celebrate “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too,” along with Harding, Nixon and Bill Clinton. Talk about skewered priorities.
We’ve gone generic with two of our greatest leaders. That’s no way to treat George or Abe. School kids no longer know the actual birth dates of, arguably, two of our three most important presidents (Jefferson being the other), or very much else about them, either. The holiday falls on a different date every year.
A holiday on Monday gives us a long three-day weekend and Washington the city, not the president would never knock that. But as every editor tells his writers, over and over, specificity is what makes a story, a person, or an idea come alive. The generic is dull, and particularly dismissive of George Washington, and just when historians are beginning to renovate his reputation. His life is considerably more complex and compelling than Parson Weems’ silly and apocryphal parable of not telling a lie about his papa’s cherry tree.
My generation was taught that George Washington was a great man, but we were never quite sure why. He was a kind of bland figurehead whose robust days took place when he was commander of our forces in the Revolutionary War. He was famous for being the first president rather than for anything he did. His very majesty kept us from understanding the nature of the man.
His name is barely mentioned in conjunction with the “Federalist Papers,” but it was Washington who presided over that impressive group of men who met in Philadelphia from May to September, 1787, to wrestle the ideas that would become our Constitution. He said very little, but it was his presence and prestige that maintained order and maneuvered important compromises. He was responsible for persuading the delegates not to talk to the fledgling press because he felt the fragile process would be overwhelmed by controversy.
When one of the delegates lost his notes and they fell into George Washington’s hand, the general rose from his chair and said with great understatement: “I must entreat Gentlemen to be more careful, lest our transactions get into the News Papers, and disturb the public repose by premature speculations.” (No delegate ever owned up to losing the notes.)
George Washington was laconic, without the eloquence of Madison or Hamilton, the wit of Jefferson or the whimsy of Lincoln, but his courtesy and politeness were considerably more than hollow forms. As we listen to the current campaign, with rhetoric pushed to extremes, candidates and voters could profitably pick up “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington,” a slender volume by Richard Brookhiser that succinctly lives up to its title. Mr. Brookhiser debunks the debunkers who scorn Washington for not being “educated enough,” as well as the idolaters who made our first president more a figure of cold marble than a man of flesh and blood. “Washington was a leader who sought explanations and explainers all his life,” writes Mr. Brookhiser, “and who mastered both what he was told and those who told him. Just as Washington’s politeness acknowledges the importance of someone else’s rights and point of view, his moderation signifies the desire to bring others along, because you need or respect them, instead of ramming something down their throats. Though he was known to have a hot temper, he also knew the dangers of rising too quickly to anger. He had no doubt read Seneca, who saw anger as the most outrageous, brutal, dangerous, and intractable of all passions.”
Today we insist that candidates have “fire in the belly,” but George Washington took the office reluctantly, twice. On each occasion he sacrificed a pastoral life at Mount Vernon. He believed the republic could not succeed without having a man of high morals, self-disciplined and in control of his passions, as its leader. He embodied on a personal level those principles on which the republic was founded. He understood that self-government required a citizenry that exercised self-control.
As we debate the role of morality and religion in this primary season we should reread a famous paragraph in Washington’s Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Happy Birthday, General, and thank you.