February 17, 2014 | Commentary on Political Thought
The obvious problem is that this makes it more difficult to recognize, and celebrate, someone who is truly exceptional. Consider George Washington. He was that rarity: “the indispensible man.”
His contributions were crucial to the revolution that won American independence and to the constitution that secured it. For generations, Americans understood that.
His birthday, having been moved to Feb. 22 when the British adopted the modern calendar, was celebrated by his contemporaries and the generations that followed. It was formally declared a holiday in 1879.
But in recent generations, that celebration has been watered down. First it was moved to the third Monday in February, to give federal employees a three-day weekend. And, while the federal government still refers to the holiday as Washington’s Birthday, in mass culture it has become “Presidents Day,” a day honoring all presidents. George himself has been increasingly relegated to serving as little more than a prop for retailers to use to drive sales.
That’s a shame.
General Washington, as he preferred to be called, led the American Revolution and was rightly extolled for being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He presided over the Constitutional Convention, his stature providing political cover to the rest of the Framers. And he was the very model of the American presidency.
Of course, as Americans have lumped Washington in with his successors, we’ve found it easier to misstate his legacy. Best-selling historian Joseph Ellis has written that Washington’s legacy of “strong executive leadership” made him the precursor to Franklin Roosevelt.
Washington wouldn’t recognize and wouldn’t have approved of the modern welfare state that FDR launched. He warned Americans to protect their Constitution from “change by usurpation.” Well, from misguided Supreme Court decisions to a vast (unelected) administrative state to Obamacare’s frequently waived mandates, there have been usurpations aplenty in recent years. Washington also wouldn’t have accepted the idea that a president can do “whatever I want,” as Barack Obama recently quipped. The first president respected that the Constitution put specific limits on his power.
It’s also ironic to compare Washington to FDR, since Roosevelt was the first president who declined to abide by Washington’s self-imposed two-term limit. Simply by running a third and fourth time, FDR expanded the scope of the presidency beyond what Washington wanted it to be.
If we’re ready to learn, George Washington still has much to teach us.
In his time, Washington understood that Congress, elected by the people, made the laws. His job was to see “that the laws be faithfully executed,” and that’s what he did. He did not use the powers of his office to create laws. He issued only eight “executive orders,” an average of one a year. Compare that to FDR’s energetic and astounding 3,522. Washington also limited himself to two vetoes, once on constitutional grounds and once in his capacity as commander-in-chief.
Washington focused mostly on foreign policy, as the Founders intended. He believed America needed a strong military so that it could “choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.” His Farewell Address remains the pre-eminent statement of purpose for American foreign policy. And his letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport explained the central role of religious liberty in American life.
When he left office, George Washington didn’t want any awards; he simply wanted to enjoy a quiet retirement at Mount Vernon. By voluntarily giving up power, he became (in the words of British monarch George III) “the greatest man in the world.” And so he remains centuries later: an irreplaceable man, worthy of our veneration.
- Rich Tucker is a senior writer in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at the Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared in the Providence Journal