Because Presidential history is one of my fields of study, I’m often asked who is my “favorite” President or who I rank as the “best” President. George Washington is my answer to both, and we downplay his significance at the cost of understanding what the Presidency really is, and what it could have been if Washington were different. I wrote a version of this piece a couple of years ago on his birthday to explain my thoughts more fully.
Do you know what day it is? Other than Thursday? It’s George Washington’s birthday. Yes, President’s Day was last Monday, but today is Washington’s real birthday. Since we’re in a heated political season (but when are we not, these days), the presidency is something we think about almost continually, but today especially we owe it to ourselves to reflect a bit on Washington.
“He didn’t do anything special, he was just the first,” is what you often get from people these days about Washington, reflecting the general diminution of him and his legacy in the popular mind. He’s the guy on the quarter and the dollar. Didn’t he chop down a cherry tree once, too? And have wooden teeth? He’s almost all caricature. But downplaying George Washington is emblematic of a thousand different things our contemporary culture does that keep us from having a proper relationship with our history. Without such a relationship it is as though we as a nation awaken anew each day with only a dim recollection of the knowledge we gained the day before.
But the American Revolution took the course it did, and the United States emerged as it did, largely because of Washington. The presidency over which we fight today didn’t have to be established as it was. It was, in fact, a very experimental thing and many people suspected it might evolve into a king. Washington being the first president, and even more, his willingness to step aside after just eight years were crucial to its lasting success. Poet Robert Frost said that George Washington was “one of the few people in the whole history of the world who was not carried away by power,” and Washington is notable because he dedicated himself to a cause more interesting to him than his own self-interest, a cause bigger than his own ambition. In a sense he was more important for what he didn’t do, for the actions he chose not to take, and for denying any personal ambition. That’s a much more difficult thing to celebrate but it’s a far more important quality in a politician than we admit these days when our candidates promise endless action.
In the larger sense, it’s good to remember that America didn’t just happen in a predestined path. It was created—its institutions were thought out by people with a certain set of political and social convictions, not to mention personal character. As much as anything, it should be from a sense of gratitude that these convictions were what they were (instead of something else: the convictions of Napoleon, for instance) that we should celebrate the birth of certain people. But instead we often water down the idea of character and conviction as though we ourselves shy away from such a standard.
Lumping George Washington into a bland “President’s Day” instead of allowing ourselves time to reflect on his unique position does a disservice to everyone, in addition to the institution of the presidency itself. In part we remember and honor Washington because in some important way his ideas have a value that transcend time and individualism, and are convictions that we ourselves—not to mention our contemporary politicians—would do well to set our course by. It’s about honoring an individual and being thankful that he allowed himself to be guided by some things and not others, and the distinctiveness with which such an allowance marks very few individuals in history. That these things can be said about Martin Luther King, Jr. just as certainly as about Washington speaks to the justification of celebrating them both independently of those who happened to share the same vocation. Benjamin Harrison—a fine fellow in his own right, I’m sure—was nevertheless no George Washington in the same way that Jesse Jackson, say, was no Martin Luther King. We celebrate something unique when we celebrate particular birthdays like these.
The future depends on our having and nurturing a proper relationship to our history, one that is itself living and emotional. Without such an attachment, our very future as a nation is subject to erosion by a thousand competing winds. As we survey a global landscape potted with what we now clinically call “failed states” we ought to pause to appreciate our success. For just as in its creation, the maintenance of the United States doesn’t just happen either, although some people seem to think otherwise. Our memory has a purpose, and it ought not to be diluted. Preservation happens through our remembering specifics. Specific events, specific people. Not simply “Presidents.” The memory of George Washington deserves better than that. So do we as a nation.