On Monday, we will celebrate Washington’s Birthday.
Not Presidents’ Day, but Washington’s Birthday, the official U.S. and Maine government designation of the day. This is my annual recognition of Washington.
To remember Abraham Lincoln and other presidents, some outright failures, the holiday honoring Washington has been absorbed by the commercial “Presidents’ Day.” But we should remember our country’s good fortune to have been led by this exceptional man.
During the war for independence, Washington had the heavy responsibility of unifying the United States. Between 1776 and 1789, the United States was composed of a collection of independent and sovereign states.
Washington faced the task of bringing and holding the country together. His experience as the only truly national figure during the war, dependent on voluntary state contributions of money and soldiers, taught him that a strong national government was essential.
Washington was an even better politician than a general. His strengths were his unwavering commitment to the idea of the United States and to civilian control of the military.
When he assumed the presidency, he understood that almost everything he did would set a precedent for history. Each step – from how he was addressed to the creation of a functioning 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.
But there was strong opposition from those who worried that 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.
Washington, a southern slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized that the two parts of the country 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.”
He believed that slavery would end as the nation’s economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about the timing and ease of the transition. He recognized that the 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 and his willingness to compromise on slavery, Washington used his national standing to hold the country together, even facing opposition from Virginia, his home state. His will provided for his slaves to be freed after his death, and his widow freed his and hers.
Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed him about 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, then in the throes of a bloody revolution. Jefferson and his allies disagreed, later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
He was disappointed at the development of political parties, and he finally split completely with Jefferson, who had formed an opposition party.
Washington had a deep religious belief. While some other Founding Fathers were deists, believing that God’s role was limited to creating the universe, Washington was a practicing Christian who often prayed, usually privately.
Yet he did not believe that the United States was a Christian nation, writing, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He opposed religious “toleration,” saying the term implied that “it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”
Because of Washington’s willingness to establish a working relationship with the British, Jefferson’s allies charged that he wanted to create something like a hereditary monarchy in the United States. Yet they could not find any evidence against him, and he had no child who might succeed him.
Washington might easily have taken more power, but he carefully avoided making his position regal and always worked closely with Congress.
He resigned as general and declined to serve more than two terms as president. When Britain’s King George III, America’s old enemy, was told that Washington would walk away from high office, he said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington has become a symbolic figure, causing us to forget him as a real person. He was a general, a president, a statesman and, above all, a great man. We should not forget that man.