Thursday, April 10, 2003

Learning About Washington Through Hamilton

Last night, I finished reading Richard Brookhiser's Alexander Hamilton, American. It's not so much a biography as it is a biographical essay about America's first Secretary of the Treasury and the primary author of The Federalist Papers, the series of essays that appeared in American newspapers in the late 1780s to argue that the Constitution should be adopted. Brookhiser has given a good account of Hamilton's life and I highly recommend it.

Interestingly, one of the most affecting passages in the book comes not in discussing Hamilton, but Hamilton's mentor, George Washington. Brookhiser quotes a letter by Congressman Fisher Ames regarding Washington's demeanor as the first president delivered his first Inaugural Address:

"...his aspect grave, almost to sadness; his modesty, actually shaking; his voice deep, a little tremulous, and so low as to call for close attention."

Like all good leaders--and I agree with historian Garry Wills' assessment that Washington was the greatest political leader in human history--Washington was a good actor. But I don't believe that the performance that Ames described was an act. Washington had tasted enough of applause to know how meaningless it ultimately is and how in the end, we are called to do our best no matter what the crowds may think of us. Washington was genuinely humbled by the unprecedented task he was taking on, the presidency of a republic that, if he did his job right and built a strong foundation for the American future, would require him to voluntarily give up absolute political power for the second time in his life.

It isn't easy to walk away from being in control! The despot Saddam Hussein ultimately had power wrested from him. Now, like Washington before them, American leaders must demonstrate that they can walk away from power as our national government prepares to turn Iraq over to a duly-constituted Iraqi government. Negotiating the landmines of foolish self-will and deep resentments of America that exist in the Middle East and throughout the world will require great wisdom (not to mention great selflessness) on the part of American leadership.

Fortunately, there is a place where our leaders--and all of us--can go for wisdom and anything else we may need to do and be our best. "If you don't know what you're doing," the New Testament book of James says, "pray to the Father. He loves to help. You'll get His help, and won't be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought." (James 1, as translated in The Message by Eugene Peterson.)

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