WASHINGTON, February 21, 2012 – In Virginia, before the short spring becomes a roasting summer, George Washington joined this world amidst a Westmoreland County, Virginia tobacco plantation on 22 February 1732.
Two centuries and eight decades have passed since that day, yet still we pause to celebrate a man who ultimately had no natural children but will always be the Father of America.
In Washington’s childhood, deprivation and revolution were not complete novelties.
His father passed away when he was just 11, and young George surely learned of adversities suffered during the Civil War that literally tore apart the English homeland for two decades during the 17th century.
Scroll forward to 14 June 1775.
Imagine yourself as George Washington at age 43—veteran in service to King, husband, and steward of fertile, sprawling estates, an entrenched member of the ancient 1% who finally resolved to rise up and lead military action against his own ruler, now a demonstrated tyrant.
Consider the perils of challenging dread King George III. If Washington lost, his life was forfeit along with all he owned — his family and his sacred honor were ruined.
Now, turn your mind to the possibility that you may actually win, against over-whelming odds, and temporarily hold control over a vast expanse of territory, separated by an ocean from the vanquished sovereign.
Having risked so much, would you cede authority to a fledgling, foundering government?
Would you be able to resist the great temptation of alienating the spoils of victory to your personal control?
What makes Washington’s leadership extraordinary is not simply that he brought ill-trained, rebellious military forces to victory or even that he surrendered the power temporarily won to an interim government.
Washington’s greatest achievement was that he would later come out of well-deserved semi-retirement to plant the outgrowth of an improbably successful revolution upon a truly enduring foundation.
Unlike Oliver Cromwell and unlike Simon de Montfort, George Washington cemented his resilient military campaigns in a remarkable and, so far, permanent, tri-partite construct of governance that invests responsible, free people with ultimate authority.
When President Washington capped his political career, he ventured to share some lessons learned in a Farewell Address that Americans would be wise to heed in 2012.
Thinking back over his life and through the birth of a nation honoring free and responsible expression of thought and action, Washington issued warnings that seem of particular relevance in this already tense election year.
First, America’s Great Author noted the ultimate peril of partisan factionalism:
“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party discussion, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid abnormalities, is itself a frightful despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security in and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than the competitors, turns the disposition to the purpose of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.”
Hindsight makes me sorely wonder why Washington and the Founders did not expressly forbid the operation of political parties or their variants within American government.
Second, President Washington humbly reminded his audience of the pre-eminent roles played by religion and morality:
“Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in the courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education in minds of particular structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Steeled to defects in the practice of organized religion, particularly state-sponsored ones, Washington nonetheless certainly understood the inherent virtues of reverence and the difference between right and wrong.
Still, no man, even George Washington is perfect.
One of Washington’s greatest hopes for America was a closing centerpiece in his Farewell Address:
“Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause us the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving of us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.”
In Washington’s time, America covered about one quarter of the territory we now control. Americans numbered some 3.8 million—a miniscule portion of the global population.
In his world, where oceans shielded America from many foes, Washington and his compatriots could relish life communing with the rhythms of nature.
Thereafter, Americans were also to spend many decades pre-occupied in agricultural and land-based pursuits, quite removed from trade in manufactured goods. Daily life could adhere much more closely to the Jeffersonian ideal:
“Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God…. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. Dependence [upon customers] begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition”.
Much has changed in America, and often for the better.
Almost, one century after George Washington’s Farewell Address, humbly grateful Americans erected an obelisk in stone, many times higher than any found in Egypt, to commemorate his legendary accomplishments.
Since 1885, economic progress has accelerated and noteworthy advances have been made in cause of promoting liberty and equal opportunity much farther than Washington did by his immediate service to our nation.
Were Washington with us now, he likely would rue most the reality that America remains enmeshed in foreign entanglements.
Washington once observed:
“The Constitution vests the power of declaring war in Congress, therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they shall have deliberated upon the subject and authorized such expenditure.”
I frankly believe George Washington would be amazed to see how far lawyers have gone in twisting the plain meaning of the Constitution to fit the form of the modern moment.
One wonders how President Washington might explain what is happening in Libya, in Egypt or in Syria to pick just three troubled places where American influence is projected at the moment in advance of robust, informed Congressional debate.
In the capital city of America that bears George Washington’s name, an overwhelming majority of those who seek to lead some 308 million Americans clings stubbornly to party affiliation, many putting narrow partisan interest far above pressing national exigencies.
Erected upon what was once was foul terrain, Washington D.C. is, in places, an urban delight and living testament to the founding ideals of the man we remember today as well as countless others who labored with and after him.
But disdain and arrogance have certainly mounted in our capital, to levels never before seen in history. Many in power act as if the Constitution is just an old and tired document, yellowed now with age, that binds when convenient. Those most aggressive in their self-importance seem to forget the very reasons men like George Washington took their own solemn oaths so seriously.
If the American experience so far has taught us anything, it is simply this–the wealth of a nation is built field-by-field and brick-by-brick on individuals and on households who gather when and where they will, who honor and uphold man-made laws and who practice religion of their independent choice.
Freedom earned after so much sacrifice is not possible forever.
No leader advances a nation’s best interests by borrowing and then squandering gargantuan sums on foreign or domestic adventures. This is as poignantly true now in the Hellenic Republic of Greece as it is in the United States of America.
The spirit that moved George Washington to rise up lies dormant until it gets persistently tested by men and women who insulate themselves from the people they should serve whether they style themselves as pharaohs and kings or as Presidents, Senators, Representatives and Justices.
On his birthday, let us join in hope that Americans will remember so many important lessons taught by George Washington in a life that began weeks before springtime in Virginia.
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