Originally christened Washington’s birthday, and still officially called such by our government, Presidents’ Day is, to many Americans, just another federal holiday on the calendar. However, as we are preparing to elect the 45th president later this year, perhaps we’re due for a subtle reminder of the greatness that has graced this office over the past 227 years, beginning with General Washington.
President George Washington, a Virginian first and an American not far behind, was the only president to date (and its unlikely we’ll ever see this repeated) who was unanimously elected, earning all of the electoral ballots—twice. Most of us can recall from our high school history lessons some bullet points of his storied (and some might argue, mythological) existence as America’s first commander-in-chief.
We’ve all heard the stories, including the one about the cherry tree and Washington’s statement to his angry father, “I cannot tell a lie, I did cut it with my hatchet.” This long-enduring anecdote about Washington was invented by his first biographer, Mason Locke, as a way to showcase Washington’s virtues after his death at the dawn of the 19th century.
However, Washington’s most admirable achievement may be the fact that he willingly renounced absolute power and voluntarily gave that power back to Congress after the close of the Revolutionary War. What’s less well known is the military coup Washington managed to avert during the winter of 1782-83. The army was encamped in Newburg, New York, and officers in the Continental Army, upset at Congress’s refusal to fulfill a promise regarding military pay, began circulating documents denouncing Congress and threatening its supremacy over the military. Fueled by several politicians in Philadelphia and other areas, these officers were calling for a potential military coup to force Congress’s hand. Thankfully, Washington was able to squash this threat. He strongly denounced the documents and, during a meeting with these officers, countered the threat by reminding them of the principles so many of them had fought and died to uphold.
Washington was beloved by his army and had the future of this nation in the palm of his hand. After the war was won, he could’ve crossed his own Rubicon and entered Philadelphia, demanding sole dictatorial power while sitting at the head of a battle-hardened and powerful military. At a turning point like no other in our history, General Washington could’ve followed in the footsteps of Rome—by which this nation was inspired—and like Caesar and his nephew Augustine, seized power by military might. Instead, Washington voluntarily gave this power back, rejecting absolute authority. This willingness to defer such power may be one of the most important decisions Washington silently made, and one that solidified our burgeoning country’s path to the representative democracy that so many of his soldiers fought, bled, and died for.
After serving his country for two presidential terms, Washington stepped down despite calls for a third term. During his famous farewell speech, Washington offered a list of stern warnings. With the ratification of a newly created Constitution, America was heading in the right direction but remained on a journey filled with great dangers, foreign and domestic. Contrary to popular belief, Washington did not advocate isolationism, but warned against permanent alliances and political connections and advised the pursuit of war or peace through the country’s own “interests, guided by justice.” Domestically, Washington warned of the divisive tendencies of political parties.
His concern was a nation separated into factions, which would tear the country apart instead of uniting the masses toward one vision—the greatness of America. Sadly, we have ignored the general’s visionary counsel, and this nation is as divided as it has ever been. We find ourselves in permanent alliances, we have given favored-nation status to a nation hell-bent on our destruction. Our military industrial complex is as powerful as ever, and our political parties continue their divisive efforts despite their crowing to the contrary.
I shudder at the thought of what General Washington would think of the nation purchased in the blood of his soldiers. Perhaps his suggestion would be to heed the Jeffersonian command found in the Declaration of Independence: “Whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” Some food for thought.
Washington was more than the myths we have created, and his impact on our lives has echoed through the centuries. Presidents’ Day, Washington Day, whatever you’d prefer to call it, offers us some time to reflect on the lives of what were real, flawed, but sometimes heroic individuals and their decisions that still shape our daily lives. With that in mind, perhaps a little reflection on those who have come before us might better prepare those who may soon be leading us, as their decisions will echo through the centuries that come after we are all long dead and buried.