On Monday, we will celebrate Washington’s Birthday.
Not Presidents Day, but Washington’s Birthday. That is the official U.S. government designation of the day, and it ought to be.
George Washington may be fading from our national memory. Because we want to remember Abraham Lincoln and other presidents as well, the holiday honoring Washington has morphed into Presidents Day.
It’s time to remind ourselves about this exceptional man.
During the hard days of the war for independence, Washington alone embodied the United States. It was a heavy responsibility, and he knew it.
From the start, Washington showed himself to be an expert politician as well as a resourceful general. His strengths were his unwavering commitment to the idea of the United States and to civilian control of the military.
As president, Washington faced the task of bringing and holding together a collection of 13 independent states. His experience as the only truly national figure during the war, dependent on voluntary state contributions of money and soldiers, taught him a strong national government was essential.
But there was great opposition from those who worried the national government would override states’ rights and individual freedoms. Washington accepted the Bill of Rights as an essential part of the deal to make a new country.
When he assumed the presidency, he understood almost everything he did would set a precedent for history. Each step – from how he was addressed to the creation of a national government to his relationship with Congress – required careful thought and preparation and showed deep respect for the popular will. The long-lasting results are a testament to his wisdom.
Washington, a slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized the North and the South had deep differences about its future and the country might break apart. If it did, a friend reported in 1795, “He had made up his mind to remove and be of the northern.”
Washington believed slavery would end as the nation’s economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about the timing and ease of the transition. For him, the American future lay in
the development of “manufactures” produced by wage labor, as was beginning to happen in the North.
Thus, 70 years before the Lincoln’s defense of the Union in the Civil War, Washington used his national standing to hold together a country divided about slavery, even against opposition from Virginia, his home state. His personal will provided for his slaves to be freed after his death, and they were.
Surprisingly, his chief opponent was Thomas Jefferson, a fellow Virginian. He bitterly opposed Washington on how to deal with the rest of the world. The president subscribed to a view later formulated by a British statesman: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”
For Washington, it made sense to sign a treaty with England rather than France, America’s wartime ally but then in the throes of a bloody revolution. Jefferson and his allies disagreed, later launching the unsuccessful War of 1812 against the British.
Washington might have taken more power, but he carefully avoided making his position regal and always deferred to Congress.
Jefferson’s supporters launched wild charges against him, claiming he sought to create something like a hereditary monarchy in the United States. Yet they could not produce a scrap of evidence against him, and he had no child who might succeed him.
He was disappointed at the development of political parties, and he split completely with Jefferson, who had formed an opposition party, which focused attacks on him.
Unlike other Founding Fathers, Washington had a deep religious belief. Many others were deists, believing God’s role was limited to creating the universe, while Washington was a practicing Christian who often prayed.
Yet he did not believe the United States was a Christian nation, writing, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He opposed religious “toleration,” saying it implied “it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
Perhaps his most amazing actions were first to retire as general and then decline to serve more than two terms as president. When Britain’s King George III, America’s foe, learned Washington would walk away from high office, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington was a self-trained soldier, a general, a president and, above all, a man – a great man. We should not forget him or let him get lost in Presidents Day.