July 14, 2002. I am reminded that today is Bastille Day. Compare, if you will, the birthday of the French Republic (the first one) on July 14th and our birthday. The importance of this comparison became perfectly clear to me on the Fourth as I watched "Rediscovering George Washington" on PBS. The fireworks boomed in the background, but it was Richard Brookhiser’s soft voice that held my attention.
He eloquently explained his twenty-five year journey to understand George Washington. In the beginning, Brookhiser explained, Washington was opaque and mysterious to him. He knew only his face. He set out to discover the man. And he did.
Some used to think (as instructed by college history professors in the 60s) that there was something really grand and truly radical about the French revolution. Now that was a revolution, what with guillotines working overtime and heads rolling! Nothing like that namby-pamby American effort! Never mind that ours was not a utopian effort, but rather based on the "Laws of Nature and Nature’s God," limited by God and human nature itself, by the republican principles enshrined in the Constitution, and—here is the rub—by the republican political habits we would establish from the start. And the person who established those habits was George Washington.
Early in the French revolution one man was held responsible in large measure for saving the republican revolution, Napoleon. Yet in the end that same man betrayed that revolution by becoming an Emperor. When all had been taken from him—now imprisoned on the isle of Elba—Napoleon said: "They wanted me to be another Washington."
When George III heard that Washington was thinking of not running for a third term—he had been unopposed for the first two—he said that if Washington went back to his farm after his public career he would be "the greatest character of the age."
These two tyrants understood something my history teachers in the 60s never did.
The French revolution produced a tyrant, and the American Revolution produced George Washington. This isn’t rocket science. There isn’t a man alive who would prefer Napoleon over Washington. Indeed it is arguably the case that Napoleon understood that Washington was a better man than he. George III certainly understood that if Washington gave up power voluntarily, he would be the true guardian of the revolution and his action would be without precedent.
Washington had different qualities—let’s just say it outright—he had a different character than other strong men in history. All the other strong men—most claiming to act on behalf of republican principles—betrayed their revolution: Caesar, Cromwell, Lenin, Hitler, Mao. They had the strength of giants and they used it as giants, and they never gave up power voluntarily. There isn’t enough ink to list all the names of all the tyrants belonging in this category.
But George Washington was different. In an age that was a saga of ideas this man with little schooling or, as he called it, a "defective education," spent three hours a day in his library musing with the great minds, some his contemporaries. But he was not an intellectual, he was, according to Brookhiser, "a man of action who absorbed the best ideas of his day and made them real."
And here is the point. During his whole life Washington put republican principles into practice: he reprimanded Colonel Nicola’s attempt to make him king, he coaxed his officers back to their better selves at Newburgh, he banned Pope Day in the army (a Puritan holiday in which the Pope was hanged in effigy), he went home to his farm after the revolution was won, and as president he welcomed Jews into the republic which gives "bigotry no sanction." And during the Whiskey Rebellion, when the United States was less than twenty years old and on the brink of a civil war, and with conflicting advice from Jefferson and Hamilton, he used retail politics—and his reputation—to counter the rebel claim that they were the heirs of the revolution and argued that in a republican regime the minority had no right to dictate to the majority. Although prepared to use force if necessary, he preferred persuasion. He did this knowing that in this regime the formation of public opinion was everything, and nothing good could be done without it.
And let us not forget the Constitutional Convention. It was clear to everyone that he needed to be there; he was indispensable (and he had to be persuaded to attend). If he didn’t attend there would be fifty-five smart guys going in eighty different directions. Under his watchful eye they created the most enduring Constitution in history. And in some measure the office of the presidency—arguably dangerous in a republican regime—was created with powers that would not have been added if the delegates did not know that Washington would be the first to hold the office. They trusted him. And he never let them down.
And when his republican duties ended, after twenty-four years at the center of events, he graciously left the stage to sit under his own vine and fig tree. He died two years later, first in the hearts of his countrymen. He even attempted to fix the crack in the American founding and in his own constancy—slavery—by emancipating his slaves in his will, with compensation for their education.
Yes, I know that this was not a perfect man and, for example, arguably he could have freed his slaves earlier, but there is no doubt that he was a great man, a man of great virtues and fine judgment. In another age he would have been called George the Great, but in our age, the one he helped create, Father of His Country will have to do. And this is a good thing to think about on birthdays like the Fourth (or the fourteenth) of July.