On Monday, we will celebrate Washington’s Birthday.
Not Presidents’ Day. Washington’s Birthday is the official U.S. and Maine government designation of the day. To remember other presidents, some outright failures, the day honoring Washington has become a commercial holiday.
But we should remember this country’s good fortune to have been led by this exceptional man. Annually, I write in recognition of Washington.
Washington was an even better statesman than military leader. His strengths were his unwavering commitment to the idea of the United States and to civilian control of the military.
During the Revolutionary War, Washington had the heavy responsibility of unifying the United States. He was the only truly national figure during the war, dependent on voluntary state financial and military contributions that made him a supporter of a strong national government.
When he assumed the presidency, he understood that almost everything he did would set a precedent for history. Each step – from the creation of a functioning executive branch to his relationship with Congress – required careful thought and preparation and showed deep respect for the popular will.
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.
A new book by journalist John Avlon examines Washington’s Farewell Address to the country at the end of his presidency. In it, he warned of today’s partisan political problems.
Washington worried about the growth of political parties that he witnessed. He predicted “the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension ….” He concluded that strong partisanship could undermine the functioning of government.
Avlon calls Washington America’s only independent president, who tried to draw on all views presented to him. Even when he was attacked, he advocated moderation and compromise.
Thomas Jefferson bitterly opposed him on dealing 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 undergoing a bloody revolution. Jefferson and his allies disagreed, later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
His disappointment at the development of political parties reached the point that he finally split completely with Jefferson, who had formed an opposition party, based mainly in the agrarian South.
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 disappear as the nation’s economy developed, though he was overly optimistic about its end. 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 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. His will freed his slaves after his death, and, against Virginia law, he left money for their education.
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.
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.”
Though lacking evidence, some thought he wanted to create something like a hereditary monarchy in the United States. 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 lose sight of him as a real person. He was a general, a president, a statesman and, above all, a great man. We should remember that man.