February 22 is George Washington’s real birthday. Today, “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” would be sitting down to blow out 281 candles on his cake, after first removing his false teeth. I find myself wondering what George would make of our nation’s leadership today.
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He would probably have been OK with a Black president. George was a good judge of character and the only one of the Founding Fathers who freed all of his slaves in his will, which also provided an old age pension for his older slaves and training in useful skills for the young ones. Most of George’s slaves came to him through inheritance and his marriage to Martha. For himself, he tended to use indentured white servants, so while he didn’t support slavery as an institution, the guy also didn’t believe in paying much for labor.
As a farmer who loved his job, before, during and after the presidency, I think George would have appreciated the Paul Harvey ode to farmers in the Super Bowl commercial. He used the newest science-based techniques and fertilizers, paid attention to future needs by switching from growing tobacco to growing wheat and diversified with a flour mill, fisheries, horse breeding and whiskey production. A card-playing gambler, George would probably have enjoyed betting on the Super Bowl too, but since he wasn’t a very good gambler, he would have bet on the 49ers and lost.
Our $16 trillion debt would probably lay him out. This is the man who kept such meticulous records of his expenses during the Revolutionary War that when he refused a salary for his term as President and offered just to keep track of expenses for reimbursement, Congress mobilized all their powers of persuasion to get him to take the salary. It was cheaper. But George was also a man meticulous about paying off debt; his own and the nation’s, and proved it time and again. He supported a balanced federal budget and sparing use of credit because he saw the nation’s credit as its security and strength.
As the only president to be elected unanimously by the Electoral College — twice — George might have a hard time accepting the current system in which nationwide voters are told that every vote counts, but 30 seconds after the polls close, a winner is announced. In George’s day, presidents didn’t take office until March 4 because it took that long to receive and count the electoral ballots. What would he have made of Super PACs and super delegates?
The first independent, Washington belonged to no party and was twice elected that way. He would be appalled by the partisanship and mudslinging that is such a part of modern presidential elections. Initially, George decided against a second term, but worried that the animosity between the newly formed Federalist and Democratic/Republican parties would tear his new nation apart, he stepped up for round two.
In his farewell address to the people of the United States, Washington called for government to move beyond partisanship to serve the common good: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.” Right on the button, George, even 237 years later.
He warned that political parties must be restrained in a popularly elected government because of their tendency to distract government from its duties, create unfounded jealousies amongst groups and regions, raise false alarms among the people, promote riot and insurrection and provide foreign nations and interests with access to the government.
Despite being Commander of the Revolutionary Army, George believed in civilian control of the military, resigning his military commission before Congress after the war. While he advocated treating other nations of the world with good faith and justice, he cautioned against having too great a sympathy with one nation or dislike of another and to stay out of other nations’ political affairs and wars, forming no permanent alliances with any. “There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation… Why quit our own to stand on foreign ground?”
With no long term faith in alliances and collaboration between nations, George might have had difficulty understanding our involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq or the other multitude of foreign pies we have our finger in.
He refused a third term of office, setting a precedent that lasted until FDR, and establishing that being president was not a lifetime job. He refused any title of office except “Mr. President,” promoting the idea that a president was not royalty, but a public servant.
People may admire Lincoln more as a president, but George was the first. His personal dignity and bearing, his integrity, sense of duty and honor helped establish America’s credibility as a nation. Above all, in his farewell address, he encouraged Americans to be united as a nation: “The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize… In this sense it is that your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”
Good words from George on his birthday.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.