Washington’s birthday

As I say every year on this day, Happy Birthday, G. Washington! This country, of which you are, or once were, deservedly called the father, has long departed from anything you could care to be a part of. Yet your example lives on, and if there is any remnant of political virtue left in America, in some sense it draws on you as its source. Truly you are unique among all political figures in history. As was said in a famous poem by a decadent poet whom your example raised above himself:

Where may the weary eye repose
When gazing on the great,
Where neither guilty glory glows
Nor despicable state?
Yes, one, the first, the last, the best,
The Cincinnatus of the West
Whom envy dared not hate,
Bequeathed the name of Washington
To make men blush there was but one!

Here is VFR’s Washington collection. This entry has a photo of Houdon’s amazingly lifelike bust of Washington in the Museum of the Louvre.

In a discussion five years ago I reflected on Washington’s relationship to the American Revolution and the American Union:

On the idea of the exposed position Washington was in during the Revolution, and how he became the rallying symbol of America: At the moment when he was appointed commander of the Continental Army, he was its only member.

We could talk a lot about the role of fate in Washington’s career, and its amazing coherence. As a 22-year-old officer in the back woods of western Pennsylvania, he ordered the first shot fired in what became the French and Indian War, which led to the struggle between Great Britain and the Colonies which led to the Revolutionary War. So, as fate had it, he personally lit the spark that led ultimately to independence and nationhood.

For the eight and a half years of the War of Independence, he struggled to hold an army in existence without sufficient government support, money, or men. That miserable experience burned into his brain what it was like to live under a government that doesn’t have the power or energy to act. As a result, he, probably more than any other man in America, understood the importance of having a government with real sovereignty and real unity and the ability to defend itself and enforce its own laws. That was what he urged in his circular letter to the states when he stepped down as general. Then, when the disfunctional nature of the Articles of Confederation became more and more unacceptable during the 1780s, he was the prime force pushing for a real government for the United States. And so he became the president of the Constitutional Convention, and then President of the United States.

During his second term in the Presidency, the terrible conflict emerged (which seventy years later ultimately turned into the Civil War) between the Jeffersonians who thought the U.S. government was simply the agent of the states, and the Washingtonians who saw the government as having sovereign power (limited, of course, by the federal structure and by checks and balances). For holding to that position, the once-universally beloved Washington was made into an object of suspicion, paranoia and contempt by the Jeffersonians, much as conservatives today are treated by liberals. The theme of his Farewell Address in 1796 was the unity of the United States, the need to have devotion and love to the Union. He was saying this at a time when the Union he was describing so eloquently didn’t yet quite exist. Yet that sense of the Union, of the importance of the Union, and of love for the Union, was something he felt in every cell of his body. It was the result of his entire life’s experience. He embodied it, and others followed him, and the result was the United States of America.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 20, 2004 10:34 PM

The country is falling apart now before our eyes, and my contemplation of Washington’s devotion to the Union may seem like some antiquarian exercise. But part of traditionalism is stepping away from our own moment and its preoccupations, and thinking on truths that transcend our own time—truths that, even if they are no longer embodied authoritatively in our actual society, are still a guide, either for this society, or for some society of the future that we cannot at present imagine.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 22, 2009 07:40 PM | Send

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