Most of the assets of the man reputed to be the wealthiest American president were in real estate, like those of one of his successors.
Unlike that successor, he was moderate in speech and open to all views before deciding. He set a model for his country. On Monday, we celebrate George Washington’s official birthday.
Not Presidents’ Day. Washington’s Birthday is the legal U.S. and Maine government designation of the day. In remembering all presidents, some outright failures, the day meant to honor Washington has become a commercial holiday.
But we should recall this country’s good fortune to have been led by this exceptional man. This is my annual column to recognize and remember him.
While we sometimes believe he had an easier job in simpler times than faces today’s president, he had to set up a federal government designed to last for centuries. He acted while being viewed with suspicion by some who feared he would end up as king.
Washington was an even better statesman than military leader. His strength was his unwavering commitment to the idea of the American republic. His chief personal ambition was not to rule, but to retire to Mount Vernon. He declined his pay in public service.
Drafting the Constitution, accomplished under his presidency of the Constitutional Convention, was only part of the task. How would the first president apply the Constitution?
Washington believed in what might be considered “big government.” During the Revolutionary War, he had depended on voluntary state financial and military contributions. The experience made him a supporter of a strong national government.
He aligned himself with constitutional drafters who argued that the United States could only become a great nation if powers were transferred from the states to the federal government. He advocated the expansion of the government he led.
He faced strong opposition from those 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.
No American has ever enjoyed more prestige in his own lifetime than Washington. But he wore the mantel of power with modesty and showed great respect for the views of others.
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.
In proposing an accord with the British, his former enemy, Washington subscribed to a view later formulated by a British statesman: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” Jefferson and his supporters disagreed, years later launching the disastrous War of 1812 against the British.
Jefferson had attacked him openly. Though Washington would ultimately cut off contact with him, he refrained from any personal attacks on his fellow Virginian. Such values seem lost in today’s politics.
Washington, a southern slave owner, agonized over slavery. He recognized that the country might break apart over the issue. 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 and was a practicing Christian who often prayed. Yet he did not believe that the United States was a Christian nation, writing to a Jewish congregation, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
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 created the aura of the presidency. Despite his divisive personal style, Donald Trump benefits from the respect for his office that is Washington’s legacy.
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.