George Washington's Choices, and Ours

You know this guy

Writing in the Boston Globe today, Presidents Day, James Carroll recounts the decisions George Washington made that did so much to set us on the path to be a functioning democracy. 
By a succession of well-known choices, Washington turned the abstraction of a nation ruled by “the people” into something real. A military commander deferring to a nascent Congress, he established the principle of civilian control. Upon victory, when he might have become an American Napoleon, he disbanded the army and returned to his farm. His personal prestige was the bridge from the Revolution to the Constitution. Unanimously elected president by the Electoral College, he eschewed trappings of monarchy, honored the separation of powers, resigned after two terms, saw to the transition, and staunchly defended the republican ideal in his farewell address. He created the presidency we know. Democracy was all theory until George Washington showed us. And then, at death, he ordered his slaves set free a signal of what had to come.
I think one reason we venerate the founding fathers so much is because the choices and actions of an individual then could make a huge difference. Integrity mattered a lot, passion mattered a lot, as did the ability to find common cause with one's opponents. This is what I took away from Joseph E. Ellis's best seller of 2000, Founding Brothers. We can glean from the title that relationships were critical to the creation of a constitutional republic that would last (even when relationships devolved to the extent that Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel!).

Because of this, we tend to think the founding fathers were better than us. And maybe they were. Maybe it took a rare confluence of remarkable, visionary people to launch this great American experiment that has indeed been a "shining city on a hill" when at its best.

But the truth now is that the United States is a behemoth, a juggernaut, one that runs in some ways on autopilot; whose directions are shaped as much or more by massive and entrenched big money interest groups as by the efforts of regular citizens and elected officials. There just isn't that much space for an individual or group of individuals to make as much of a difference. I'm not saying that the integrity of individuals doesn't matter today, but that it's just really rare that a person might be seen as a shaper of a nation's destiny.*

The greatness of the founding fathers was in many ways a product of the times in which these men found themselves. Neither is their greatness untainted, as the great injustice and inhumanity of slavery was kicked down the road in the interest of creating this thing called the United States.

* An alternate theory might be that it's easier for a person, or small group, to make a big negative difference than a positive one. Think of the 9-11 terrorists, and a strong individual, Dick Cheney, who almost single-handedly defined our catastrophic responses to their heinous acts. For more on this read Mark Danner's great new essay, In the Darkness of Dick Cheney, at the New York Review of Books.


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