As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, it would be wise to reflect upon politics, civic engagement, and the campaign season upon us. Even more important, we should reflect upon the president this holiday honors.
No matter the candidate or party this year, all seem eager to grasp control, rather than reluctantly take on the mantle of power. This is a far cry from our first president and his attitude toward holding the highest office in the land.
Let us contemplate the father of our country — and why he earned that moniker. Washington never put himself above the goals of the nation. He understood that every action he took, every example he laid out, would be the guiding principle of his day, and of the future. His beliefs held firm, even in the face of the greatest prize: total power.
Americans have a love-hate relationship with power. We differentiate ourselves from others and their dreams of conquest, seeing ourselves not as an “empire upon which the sun never sets,” but instead as a “shining city on the hill.” Washington’s understanding of Americans’ trepidation about power was better than anyone’s.
Consider how we almost crowned a king instead of electing a president. At the end of the War for Independence, the country was in complete chaos. The colonies fought bitterly over how to unite, and the financiers worried about such things as paying soldiers, overwhelming debts, and institutional direction. Our future was a frightening question mark.
Monarchy was the prevailing mode of governance throughout the world, typically providing stability and control — things desperately needed. So the leaders at the time decided that a single, all-powerful ruler — a dictator or king — was required to ensure the nation’s survival.
In the spring of 1782, as the war was ending, Washington received a letter from one of his officers. The letter quite bluntly urged Washington to become king, assuring him of his army’s total loyalty. Washington was stunned. Normally a very diplomatic man, you can hear the horror in his tone as he responds:
With a mixture of great surprise and astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, and I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity.
Amazingly, his tone then turns to sorrow and shame: Washington not only could not imagine seizing power, he was worried he had done something to encourage that thought. He continued:
I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my Country. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.
Rather than calling for royal robes and a crown, Washington said no. Even more important, despite his own dreams of glory, he was horrified that he had somehow inspired the idea in the first place.
Today, most politicians would be calling for the tailor and jeweler: Politicians at every level seem more worried about personal glory than public service. It is not that ambition is wrong or incompatible with a sense of duty to one’s country over one’s self; it is that ambition must be properly channeled and understood.
Many of our Founding Fathers, including Washington, were very ambitious. Yet despite their personal vanities and desires, they ultimately believed foremost in the duty and honor they owed their country, in wielding power for the good of all. Washington was an ordinary man who reluctantly took on the mantle of power to fulfill the need of his nation, and always kept in mind that it was not for his glory, but for his country’s glory. In that, he was extraordinary.
Today, we cannot blame the politicians alone. We are fortunate to live in a free, democratic country, where our voices can be heard. Unfortunately, too many Americans do not bother to be engaged or informed about issues, and do not even bother to vote.
This means the blame for the tone in Washington and the caliber of our politicians lies on us. In countries around the world, people are sacrificing their lives to achieve what past Americans already gifted us. We owe it to those who came before us, to those fighting for “Spring” elsewhere, and to ourselves, to be involved and to lead from home.
So as February marks both the celebration of our first president and the middle of this interminable election season, take the time to study our past, consider what is the best for the nation, and what it really means to be a “leader.” Goodness knows our nation is deeply in need of a George Washington–type leader right now.
— Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in national politics, is a freelance writer and author of two books, including Washington’s God: Religion, Liberty and the Father of our Country (Basic Books).