Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Especially Thankful for George Washington Today

Watching what's happening in the Middle East, where sick men have held onto power for decades, I'm thankful to live in the United States.

Here, we take for granted the peaceful transition of executive power.

The human instrument by which that incredible blessing has come to us was George Washington.

As I've pointed out before, Washington turned down the offer of absolute power more than once. Most notably, of course, he did when he resigned his commission as general of the US Army at the close of the Revolutionary War and then again, when he refused to hold onto the presidency, instead voluntarily retiring to Mount Vernon, his home in Virginia.

The pressure on Washington, who, except for periods when the American cause appeared lost during the Revolution, was an almost deified public figure, to become a dictator was almost constant. In one famous incident during the war, Washington learned that American officers, disgusted with Congress' failure to pay them their salaries, were plotting to overthrow Congress and give absolute power to Washington. In his typically self-controlled manner, Washington called the officers together and defused their plot, calling it shocking. Always a master of political theater, Washington won the day when, as he prepared to read a letter from the Congress, he paused to pull out a pair of eyeglasses. Nobody had ever seen Washington wear glasses before. He explained, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Grown men who had watched Washington's heroics during the war and loved him, began to weep. The plot was extinguished and this country's trajectory toward becoming a true republic was established.

In their book, The American President, Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt, observe that in its formative years, the United States, a nation that declared itself into being, but whose constituent states had little experience of working together or of seeing themselves as part of a single nation, had little in the way of a national character. The galvanizing Washington, they say, lent his character to the United States. The new country took shape largely in his image.

That's a very good thing. Had the United States borrowed Thomas Jefferson's character, for example, one could see it quite quickly devolving into what the founders called "mobocracy," a chaotic and splintered mess. Had it borrowed the character of of John Adams, it likely would have broken apart under attempts at too much centralization. Washington, as general and as first US president, exercised the incredible self-control and focus of purpose that was his trademark to allow an unlikely collection of independent colonies to become what it has become (and still strives to be): a place in which liberty and mutual accountability are held in balance to maximize the freedom of people, a model for most of the democratic nations of the world.

Washington was not perfect. While it's clear that he was moving toward a belief in emancipation of slaves, he shared the blindness of whites in his time to the sin of racism. As a general, he was less of a military tactician, his plans often bogging down from their Rube Goldberg-complexity, than he was a political general, recognizing fairly early in the war that his main obligation was to keep his army intact and win a battle of attrition against an empire he hoped would tire of fighting.

As president however, Washington had perfect pitch. Always good at listening to the best counsel from the best minds and then making the best decisions, he showed this capacity throughout his eight years. Recognizing that the United States needed time to develop free of outside pressures, he wisely steered clear of aligning the country with either Great Britain or France in their struggles. Knowing the country needed to be established as a unified entity, he embraced Alexander Hamilton's plan for assuming the massive debts the states had incurred during the Revolution, thereby knitting the country together. Sponsoring Hamilton's broader economic plans, Washington ensured that free enterprise would flourish in the United States.

During most of his second term, Washington endured vicious--and anonymous--attacks on his character sponsored by Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, among others. But Washington, as always, bore it and overcame it, comporting himself with dignity.

My son once asked me who my greatest heroes were. You have to be careful about naming heroes. I never want to engage in hero worship; the only Person I worship is the God made known in Jesus Christ.

I esteem the apostles, who carried the Gospel of Jesus into the world. Martin Luther and Billy Graham are also special figures to me.

But in the political realm, George Washington is without peer, a man who overcame his own rugged upbringing, his lack of formal education, and volcanic passions, learning to control himself and so, becoming the farmer-statesman he early envisioned himself becoming. I agree with historian Garry Wills, who, in an interview on CSPAN once said that George Washington was the greatest political leader of all time.

I think that's indisputably true. And even King George III, the monarch from whom independence was gained in the American Revolution, seems to have agreed. Informed by American painter Benjamin West that it was Washington's intention to go home to Mount Vernon at the end of the Revolution, King George said, "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world." Washington did and in his time, he was.
Below are links to some of my favorite Washington biographies.

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