The presidency and the character of the people

"Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?"
--George Washington Farewell Address, 1796



The commemoration of George Washington's birthday on the 22nd of this month will for me gain a new significance, one which I doubt will ever diminish. Two hundred years ago in 1799, George Washington, father of our country, our first president, passed heroically from this world. Yes, February 1999 is a momentous month in the history of the presidency. Washington was revered by the people of America; his integrity, courage and humility exemplified their ideal "chief magistrate." It is to President Washington, and to the people and their representatives who elected him, establishing an example for the posterity of America, that I offer this tribute.

The People

Our founding fathers repeatedly expressed the worry that our constitutional, federal republic was a precarious experiment which could only be successful as long as we, the people remained virtuous. As Washington said, "'Tis substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular [representative] government ... [Who] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric." Benjamin Franklin on the same topic, matter-of-factly issued a chilling if not prophetic statement on the eventual fate of America: "[T]here is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if well administered; and I believe, further, that this [the Constitution] is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other." In a nutshell, Franklin and virtually every one of the founders said this: We are free because we are now a virtuous people, the time will come when the people will become corrupt; turning from self government to despotic government. Why were the founding fathers in universal agreement on a subject to which the American people are today so universally ignorant? Surely they would not carelessly link morality and freedom. After all, they were talking about the very survival of the freedom for which they risked their "lives, fortunes and sacred honor." But then what was the big deal? And why was the virtue of the people indispensable to a republic but less so to all other forms of government? Simple, because, as one of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention declared, "The people are king!" The people are sovereign. The people are self governing. Now, in all other governments a monarch, an emperor, a single individual, was responsible for the welfare of the nation or empire. The very character of the nation, whether it was one of liberty and justice or that of slavery and tyranny, was determined by the character of the king: good king -- good government, bad king -- bad government. Now remember, in America the people are king -- vested with powers never entrusted to a populace in the history of the world. And that, my friends, is why our founders repeatedly stressed that our freedom depended on a moral, religious citizenry.

Alexis de Tocqueville, only 30 years after Washington's death wrote in his great work, "Democracy in America" "Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; ... I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society." Tocqueville sought to educate the people of France as to the causes of American greatness and freedom, relating the truths he gained from his study of our country, "Despotism may govern without faith but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic ... than the monarchy. ... It is more needed in a democratic republic than in any others. How is it possible that society shall escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed?"

The people's choice: George Washington

The character of a leader can best be expressed by his conduct under extraordinary, dangerous or tempting circumstances. How did Washington fare when faced with the seduction of power? A few telling events will illustrate:

In 1781, Virginia, Washington's beloved home, was captured by the British. Gov. Thomas Jefferson feared the permanent loss of Virginia to England. "The government of Virginia being scattered and inoperative, Washington received anguished pleas from powerful leaders that he become political as well as military dictator over his native commonwealth. He brushed those suggestions aside." (Flexner, "Washington, The Indispensable Man")

In May of 1782, General Washington received a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola who informed him of a proposal by others in the military to make Washington king! The reply was swift, stern and honorable: "Be assured Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity. ...I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable...."

Dictator of Virginia? King of the United States? What would compel Washington to bypass the enormous powers he was offered? The things far more dear to him: honor, duty, faithfulness.

Washington was elected to his first term as president without campaigning or even seeking the office. As a matter of fact, he wished only to return to private life. His election was unanimous and his acceptance agonizing. In his letter to the mayor and the citizens of Virginia he wrote, "Although I ought not to conceal, yet I cannot describe, the painful emotions which I felt in being called upon to determine whether I would accept or refuse the Presidency of the United States." Washington was obviously not a man with an insatiable hunger for power. This great man, summoned to lead by the will of this nation lays bare his humility when he then wrote, "The whole tenor of my life has been open to your inspection; and my past action, rather than by present declarations, must be the pledge of my future conduct."

The question as to Washington's title was addressed by the Senate. Its recommendation, "His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties." To his credit, George Washington didn't bite.

History records Washington's painstaking examination to which he exposed his every decision both public and private. In a letter to Catherine Mackaulay Graham during his second year of office the president writes, "In our progress towards political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodded ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent." His words tell us that as president, his conduct would set an example for the nation and future holders of his office.

In 1789 during his inauguration, "[he placed his] left hand on the Bible, which had been opened between the 49th and 50th chapters of Genesis. He then kissed the Bible and reverently said, 'So help me God.'" (Roche, "The Book of Heroes") Washington began his presidency with an inaugural address. In it he articulated the relationship discussed at the beginning of this column, that of the people, morality and republican government, "the foundation of our national policy [must] be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality. ...there's no truth more thoroughly extablished than that there exists indissoluable union between virtue and happiness ...the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered as ...staked on the experiment intrusted to the hands of the American people."

A president's legacy could be defined as the state of the nation at his leaving office, the direction to which he turned his country and the verdict which history will administer. John Adam best articulates President George Washington's. "For his fellow citizens, if their prayers could have been answered he would have been immortal ...His example is now complete, and it will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations as long as our history shall be read."


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