Today's Politicos vs The Words and Deeds of The Founders
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The Indispensable Man

houdon bust of WashingtonGeorge Washington was born on this day in 1732.

As President, he built a strong, well-financed national government that avoided war, suppressed rebellion and won acceptance among Americans of all types, and Washington is now known as the “Father of his country”. Wikipedia

George Washington is not called the father of our country for nothing.   He truly was “the indispensable man.”   It is a tragedy that schools give so little focus to the study of American History and that people no longer know much about this great man.  Fortunately, there is no shortage of excellent books on the subject including a recent biography of Washington by Ron Chernow (reviewed here.)

Why was Washington called “the indispensable man?” Simply because he was just that. Without Washington we would not have had a country.  It may be true that there were others whose contributions were also indispensable – James Madison and Alexander Hamilton spring to mind.   But the reality is that it was Washington who saved the movement for independence at Trenton on Christmas day in 1776.   It was Washington who stopped a disgruntled officer corps from taking matters into their own hands at Newburgh headquarters.   Washington voluntarily turned in his commission and categorically rejected those who would make him king.

Time and time again, when called on to serve his country he risked his reputation, his fortune and his life.   He served without pay during the war.   He put his life on hold to the extreme detriment of his personal finances.

It was Washington who orchestrated the conduct of the Constitutional Convention and served as it’s president.

Washington worked diligently behind the scenes to get the Constitution ratified by the States. And it was Washington who was elected twice unanimously to serve as the country’s first president.  It was he who set the precedents and established the character of the office.

Perhaps most importantly, it was Washington who voluntarily stepped down from power after his second term, creating the model for limiting the terms of  executive service that was not violated until F.D.R.

It was Washington who kept the young nation out of war and maneuvered among strong European powers which sought to manipulate the country for their own ends.

Most remarkable was Washington’s foresight, and his vision of what the United States would become. At the end of the war, even prior to the Constitution, Washington was able to see what few others did.

The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniencies of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are, from this period, to be considered as the Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity; Here, they are not only surrounded with every thing which can contribute to the completion of private and domestic enjoyment, but Heaven has crowned all its other blessings, by giving a fairer oppertunity for political happiness, than any other Nation has ever been favored with. Nothing can illustrate these observations more forcibly, than a recollection of the happy conjuncture of times and circumstances, under which our Republic assumed its rank among the Nations; The foundation of our Empire was not laid in the gloomy age of Ignorance and Superstition, but at an Epocha when the rights of mankind were better understood and more clearly defined, than at any former period, the researches of the human mind, after social happiness, have been carried to a great extent, the Treasures of knowledge, acquired by the labours of Philosophers, Sages and Legislatures, through a long succession of years, are laid open for our use, and their collected wisdom may be happily applied in the Establishment of our forms of Government; the free cultivation of Letters, the unbounded extension of Commerce, the progressive refinement of Manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have had a meliorating influence on mankind and increased the blessings of Society. At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be intirely their own.

Such is our situation, and such are our prospects: but notwithstanding the cup of blessing is thus reached out to us, notwithstanding happiness is ours, if we have a disposition to seize the occasion and make it our own; yet, it appears to me there is an option still left to the United States of America, that it is in their choice, and depends upon their conduct, whether they will be respectable and prosperous, or contemptable and miserable as a Nation; This is the time of their political probation, this is the moment when the eyes of the whole World are turned upon them, this is the moment to establish or ruin their national Character forever, this is the favorable moment to give such a tone to our Federal Government, as will enable it to answer the ends of its institution, or this may be the ill-fated moment for relaxing the powers of the Union, annihilating the cement of the Confederation, and exposing us to become the sport of European politics, which may play one State against another to prevent their growing importance, and to serve their own interested purposes. For, according to the system of Policy the States shall adopt at this moment, they will stand or fall, and by their confirmation or lapse, it is yet to be decided, whether the Revolution must ultimately be considered as a blessing or a curse: a blessing or a curse, not to the present age alone, for with our fate will the destiny of unborn Millions be involved. excerpt from Circular Letter to States, June 8, 1783

His words, while said in the context of encouraging the states to consolidate their political powers under a Federal system, are pregnant with meaning for today.  It is up to us to choose respectability and prosperity, to preserve the legacy that Washington and the Founders bequeathed to us.  We have a choice, whether we will stand or fail.

4 comments

1 John Carey { 02.22.11 at 8:48 pm }

I was listening to story about him this morning on the radio. The story was about when he gave up his commission and sword to congress after the revolutionary war ended. He was a national hero, popular with the people and his troops and he quietly walked away from all of it. This noble and humble act was something that was simply unheard in his day. Years later Napoleon was being interviewed while in exile and the interviewer asked why he chose to crown himself emperor instead of installing a Republic like he promised. Napoleon pondered the question for a minute or so and smiled as he replied, “We cannot all be a George Washington.” George Washington was an amazing man and for that I am truly great full. He set the necessary tone of a young nation and propelled us on our journey. Thanks for the post.

[Reply]

Martin Reply:

John, I’m always pleased when someone from Sentry Journal stops by! I love the vignette about Napoleon, I’d never read that one! I had read about King George’s comment when told that Washington was going to surrender his commission, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world”.

I think I like the Napoleon story better! Thanks for sharing it.

(I wish more people could be like George Washington.)

[Reply]

2 Bob Mack { 02.26.11 at 9:05 pm }

Excellent essay, Martin. Washington should be at the top of anyone’s list of heroes–maybe even a few Democrats.

[Reply]

3 Teeing it Up: A Round at the LINKs | SENTRY JOURNAL { 02.27.11 at 2:02 am }

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