The series of posts I have in mind for "Is America Exceptional?" continues to change as I meditate on the extremely broad subject. Indeed, the breadth of America's exceptionality defies concision and methodology. In my deliberations on the subject matter that should follow the first post in the series, I found myself thinking more and more about a man whose name is ubiquitous in our society, but who ironically is relatively unknown and underappreciated for the many gifts he bequeathed to his citizens and his country. Today George Washington turned 278 years old, and so I am compelled to cast my puny laurels to the man whose name is synonymous with greatness.
Contemporary scholarship on American History has tended to focus on the subject matter involving World War II and the Civil War. Those Americans who still care about their history and begin a cursory study of the Civil War, always tend to marvel at the extraordinary man who was Abraham Lincoln, and indeed I whole-heartedly agree that Lincoln was a great man who transcended his own time. Lincoln did things that defined many of the great aspects of this nation, and this nation would be unrecognizable without his efforts. Many historians--both amateur and professional alike--think so highly of Lincoln's contributions as to rate him the greatest of all Presidents. I believe this to be a grave error. While Lincoln did many great and virtuous things, the Lincoln we knew could never have existed without Washington.
A recent biographical study of Lincoln entitled, Lincoln's Virtues, discussed the many admirable qualities of Abraham Lincoln's personality, character and belief systems. The main thrust of the book is to illustrate how incredibly unlikely it was for a person from such humble beginnings and educationally desolate formative years to acquire the many noble qualities that Lincoln possessed. This book is quite persuasive due mostly to the fact that its argument has the luxury of being true. What the book neglects to mention is that Lincoln was a student of Washington's virtues. Lincoln had the luxury of following Washington and learning from his noble qualities and virtues. In the rich tableau of western civilization and the history of the world, there was no one from which Washington could draw that would lead him to his most extraordinary actions.
To place Washington's actions in the proper perspective, one has to understand the culture and the environment of the Colonial Era. Democratic government was a mere concept--the subject of debates for philosophers like John Locke and others. Only the most educated and indulged were aware of Ancient Greece's experience in democracy, and it was largely discussed in terms of its structural failings. From the time of the Revolutionary War until his death in 1799, Washington's countenance, reputation, and celebrity knew no peer. He was very much a revered figure throughout the colonies and the states. A combination, John Wayne, Barak Obama (during the 2008 campaign), and Brett Favre. He was never at a loss for people to tell him how great he was. When it was time to select the Commander-in-Chief for the Continental Army, he was the blatantly obvious choice. No other military figure could command the respect of soldiers and citizens throughout the colonies. When it came time for the Constitutional Convention, he was the unanimous choice to chair the proceedings. When the ratified Constitution required an elected Chief Executive, he was the unanimous choice of the people and the Electoral College.
There were many things that George Washington did during his life that were transformational, or meaningful, or at least noteworthy. However, there was one thing that George Washington did on at least 2 occasions that leaves him with a distinction that has no peer--he refused absolute power when it was served to him on a silver platter. First, on March 15, 1783, Washington was instrumental in dissolving a growing conspiracy among his senior officers in the Continental Army, which was preparing to threaten Congress, perhaps through a use of force, to compensate them for back pay and pensions for their services in the Continental Army. On November 25, the British Army withdrew from the United States, and on December 23 Washington formally resigned his commission in the Continental Army and went home. Upon hearing of this unique occurrence, King George III of Great Britain said the following, "If he does that (i.e. resign his commission and go home), he will be the greatest man in the world."
Indeed, when the great men of the ages were faced with similar conflicts of interests and opportunities, they always took the self-aggrandizing route. Julius Caesar, upon returning from his conquest of Gaul, crossed the River Rubicon with his Legions, and ended 450 years of the Roman Republic; Oliver Cromwell disbanded Parliament and made himself "Lord Protector" of Great Britain; albeit a corrupt government, Napoleon conspired to overthrow it and install himself as emperor.
The second occasion for Washington's magnanimity was when he chose not to stand for a third Presidential term. Although Washington had been elected by unanimous consent of the Electoral College twice before, and by dint of his iconic, other-worldly status at the time, he would have been assured an easy re-election. This man, having personally fashioned the office of the Executive in a Republic single-handedly cemented its balance by seeding his power and going home. His faith in the resilience of the fledgling Constitution and the supporting institutions that he helped fashion in the first eight years allowed this Indispensable Man to go home to his plantation. Simone Bolivar, a figure whom many in Latin America hold in as high an esteem as Washington, styling himself as a believer in free markets and republican government, nevertheless, clung to power to life's bitter end. As a result, he left weak republican structures in the area that he had governed (e.g. modern day Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia) and whose echoes reverberate in the chaotic governance of Latin America to this day.
The uncommon humility of so universally revered a man like Washington makes this second step away from power so remarkable. The strength of character required to resist the seductive hubris that is ever present among those in proximity to great power for many years has proven irresistible to nearly all those exposed to it. Washington's action was enough to compel lesser men with greater ambition to shrink from the presumption of serving more than 8 years in the White House. I am sure that Washington's experience was one of the inspirations for Charles De Gaulle's famous quote that the cemeteries are filled with 'indispensable men'. Washington demonstrated through his actions that no man is indispensable when a proper structure for republican governance has been formed. This most Indispensable of Men, resisted man's greatest temptation, and conferred upon the United States a foundation upon which to create an Exceptional Nation.