On Monday, February 20, I will celebrate Washington’s Birthday. That is still the official federal holiday—“President’s Day” and “Washington’s and Lincoln’s Day” are among informal variants - it is a state right to decide whose birthday is being celebrated: Virginia, Illinois, Iowa and New York are the only states that exclusively celebrate Washington’s birthday. The modern impulse to “inclusiveness,” in this case, has led us astray. Lack of focus creates an unwelcome blur when meaning should be clear.
George Washington’s life, and his service to America, exemplify just a few ideals, but to perfection—and they are ideals that define America - I would name: patriotism, the citizen statesman, refusal of personal political power, unapologetic national self-interest, the rule of law, and absolute adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
Washington' powerful and enduring ideals have become part of the American spirit and political heritage--so much so, as Ayn Rand dramatizes with bitter irony in a scene from Atlas Shrugged (Part II, Ch.6) -- that those who betray them must avert their gaze from Washington’s legacy. She writes, describing a meeting of the looters in Washington, DC, to pass Directive 10-289 to crush the last of the country’s economic freedom:
"Whatever type of men we're counting on and planning for," said Dr. Ferris, "there's a certain old-fashioned quotation which we may safely forget: the one about counting on the wise and the honest. We don't have to consider them. They're out of date."
James Taggart glanced at the window. There were patches of blue in the sky above the spacious streets of Washington, the faint blue of mid-April, and a few beams breaking through the clouds. A monument stood shining in the distance, hit by a ray of sun: it was a tall, white obelisk, erected to the memory of the man Dr. Ferris was quoting, the man in whose honor this city had been named. James Taggart looked away.
In his time, an intense idealism enabled Washington to produce achievements never duplicated or first established in his day and still influential. Washington fought the War of Independence when no one else could have succeeded, making more difference than any other single wartime leader in our history.
A wealthy Virginia plantation owner, Washington’s early career was in the American colonial army fighting Indians and French in what was then the American West. He was consistently successful and a general who fought beside his men. His aspiration was a commission in the British army (he greatly admired the Empire), but lost to pure prejudice; the British army sneered at colonial soldiers fighting mere Indians. Washington was rightly bitter, but no one ever better exemplified the advice: ‘Don’t get mad, get even.’
Washington himself was notable for tolerance, declaring of immigrants: “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohammedans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or they may be atheists.”
Like most in the colonies, Washington experienced the weight of British bureaucracy, and then British laws imposed on the colonies, as both damaging his “interest”—exporting tobacco and importing everything else—and an affront to his rights as an Englishman. As a frontiersman as well as a big landowner, he cherished and embraced the American west—at that time, the wilderness west of the Allegany Mountains. The British Great Proclamation, a fantastic British plunder worthy of today’s Postmodernist politicians, mandated that all of America west of the Allegheny range was reserved to the Indians. Another big black mark for the British with Washington.
When, after a long series of affronts and negotiations, the Continental Congress conceded, at last, that war with Britain was inevitable (by then, the shooting had begun at Lexington), only George Washington had the military experience and personal stature (in the Virginia House of Burgesses), to lead the Continental Army. And that was the Congress’s clear intention—full responsibility for the war. Washington got such promises of support as he could extract, including that Congress would raise a Continental Army, insisted that he would serve without pay, and accepted the commission.
The course of the war and its major encounters and crises are well known; many patriots, including other officers, fought heroically, but Washington and his troops, from the start, and at every step, winning and losing, retreating and turning to attack, were the focus. During the famous winter at Valley Forge, and other crises, if Washington had given up, resistance would have collapsed.
No central government was managing the recruitment of troops; no central government was ensuring funding and supplies. After all, it was General Washington’s war. Washington wrote literally hundreds of eloquent, begging letters to Congress and every state legislature asking for troops, money, supplies. There always was just enough if you didn’t mind starving and wearing rotting boots. He did a vast amount of paperwork that Congress could not manage. Had he not had the experience of running a great plantation, with the constant problem of supplies and a lot of “making do,” it is doubtful he would have survived. He did have one aide-de-camp, a New York immigrant from the West Indian island of Nevis, by the name of Alexander Hamilton - perhaps the greatest financial planning, administrative, and management mind of that or any generation. And, also, by the way, an artillery man with fighting heart.
After Yorktown, when the war had been won, the Continental Congress kept dithering so that payments to troops were in arrears and meager supplies kept troops hungry; Washington’s officers put enormous pressure on him to simply take over government. He had won the war. He was doing the only important job on the national level in the country. Civilians just weren’t up to it. It was the only known attempted military coup in our history. Washington faced it down, talking to the mostly younger officers to persuade them so stand down.
To end forever any talk of a coup, Washington rode on December 23, 1783, to the Philadelphia State House, where Congress sat. He had written out his brief resignation speech. He took it out of his pocket with trembling hands and read it. Then, he handed in his written resignation, shook hands with each member, strode from the chamber, mounted his horse, and rode all night to arrive home at daybreak. He had done his job; he was a civilian; it was back to work to pick up the pieces of his plantation and his life.
When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, Washington was prevailed upon to preside. He chose, as always, restraint. He moderated, but declined to contribute to the discussion. Interestingly, the only substantive thing that was recorded was his rebuke to those who seemed to hold the premise that acting in the national interest must take precedence over acting for individual interest. He said that to expect citizens to be motivated “by any other principles than those of interest is to look for what never did and I fear never will happen…”
In the nearest thing to a bipartisan election in our history, held when the states voted for their presidential electors, Washington was unanimously voted the first President of the United States of America.
There is no list of big initiatives accomplished during Washington’s two terms in office. Not in the sense of the Louisiana Purchase during Thomas Jefferson’s terms. What occurred was an organization of government, defying conflicting forces in the states and among merchants, farmers, bankers, and former soldiers. America had only the beginnings of shaky revenue and major debts from the war. By 1780, the worst inflation in American history had almost wiped away the value of the paper “Continental.” There was a huge debt and other war claims against the new government.
And so, without heroic gestures or initiatives, and relying upon the financial genius who helped him win the war, Alexander Hamilton, Washington’s government saved the Continental and fully funded the debt with long-term securities payable in gold. The federal government also assumed remaining war debts of states so that the new nation started debt free. The United States already in per capita terms was the richest country in the world. When American credit was restored, and with a stable currency, it began the greatest growth surge in history.
Ever since, historians have debated the activist role of Hamilton, who involved the new nation in creating currency, national banking, and, most controversially, “promoting manufactures.” Nevertheless, the stability, growing trust in government, and reliance on Washington himself had led after eight years to a booming economy, burgeoning inventions and manufacture, and expanded trade based on the sound currency.
What Washington repeatedly did was listen to proposals from Hamilton, his secretary of the treasury, Thomas Jefferson, his secretary of state, and others proposing exciting initiatives for government. Washington kept repeating, rather monotonously, that they had no warrant in the new Constitution. He said also, with a logic rare today, that the Constitution be enforced—that its mandates were limited, but, freely agreed by the sovereign people, were absolute as far as they went.
The architects of the Constitution gave their new nation an instrument of incomparable effectiveness—principled and brilliant in its structure—but that this written constitution is now the oldest, longest to survive in the world, owes also to Washington’s consistency in demanding obedience to it and, of course, the prestige of his name and precedent.
In foreign affairs, Washington, not easily, upheld the principle of “America first” against the pressure from his nearest associates - like Thomas Jefferson, but many others - to intervene to protect the newborn French Revolution from the growing military opposition of Europe’s mighty monarchies. It was not easy to take Washington’s stand in view of the French involvement on the American side in the recent War of Independence, perhaps decisive in the naval realm. But ironically, that had been the Old Regime in France, now going under the guillotine. Washington would not intervene on the part of the French Revolution.
When his second term expired, the nation stood at an apex of prosperity, international standing, and principle. Many feared losing Washington’s leadership so early in the great experiment. As after the war, though, he simply said, “No.”
He delivered his farewell address, which he drafted, Hamilton revised, and Washington then worked on again. He said relatively few things, but they were by then signatures of his government.
He warned against the partisanship that clamored to alter the nature and reach of government. For Washington, the job of the president, and government, was to execute the great body of laws mandated by the people—the Constitution. He reminded citizens that the country was united by nature and tradition over some 250 years preceding independence. “With slight shades of difference you have the same Religion, Manners, Habits, and Political Principles,” a Constitution protecting individual rights should benefit all as long as none sought special political favors and advantages.
The foundation of their new nation was respect for the Constitution. “The Constitution that at any time exists, until changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory on all.” He was addressing, of course, politicians, because he spoke in the context of warning against factions fighting for political power to gain advantages. The two statements were his mighty affirmation of the rule of law in America.
Washington warned against becoming involved in the alliances and disputes of foreign governments, the “entanglements.” He was proud to have kept the new nation out of the war engulfing Europe. To remain independent on the international scene required, above all, trade with all nations on terms of equality.
Finally, speaking as his audience was aware in the context of the terror in France, where revolutionists, rejecting all tradition, including religion, and supposedly inventing a secular state rationalistically derived from first principles, Washington inveighed against belief that America was or could be a secular state. America was a government, and nation, of laws, but also morality. For Washington—although a deist—morality meant religion. He said that all experience showed that “national morality” could not prevail “in exclusion of religious principle.”
He had stated his credo, the credo by which he had lived. He again had done what his countrymen asked him to do. He departed for Mount Vernon.