Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Last Temptation of Washington

Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.

When we think of the American Revolution, we tend to think of the Revolutionary War; but the “revolution” essentially involved an experiment that had its inception in the 1750s, resulted in a war twenty years later, and slowly came to fruition in the subsequent decades. Simply put, the revolution was an attempt to depart from monarchical control and erect a representative government on a demographic scale that had never before been attempted. One can find many dramatic moments and turning points in this story of national liberation. Washington’s speech at the Newburgh encampment gave a final blow to the forces arrayed against the nascent American Republic.

In the early spring of 1783, well over a year after hostilities had ceased, a group of congressmen and top military commanders conspired to topple the fragile government in a coup. Washington eventually caught wind of the plot. Specifically, officers threatened to act against Congress if they did not receive their long-overdue pensions. Unfortunately the new federal government was bankrupt. Washington, an aristocrat and commander of the Continental Army, believed that dictatorial power opposed the principles for which he and his men had been fighting. He arranged for a meeting with the officer corps at the Newburgh encampment. When he entered the meeting hall there was tension in the air. Despite his national reputation he knew that his life was in danger. He had spent the previous day drafting a speech and choreographed the setting for the speech behind the scenes. Emotions ran high among the men at the meeting when he spoke the words quoted above. At that moment the military coup and future dictatorship became stillborn. Countries in South America, Africa, and Asia have tried for decades to create a republic, but they often end up as military dictatorships. Did our first commander-in-chief fully appreciate the momentous precedent he was selflessly setting? One historian has called the Newburgh conspiracy the “Last Temptation of Washington.”

On an appearance on Late Show with David Letterman Senator Obama, then a presidential candidate on the campaign trail, suggested that all the hate seemingly directed towards us in the world today is just disappointment. Here he was playing politics, distancing himself from the previous administration. But his perspective and insight were no less profound. “They want America to lead through our values, through our ideals, and through our examples.” The world has high expectations for the United States and still depends on the Proud Eagle as a force for good and stability in the world. Washington, I concede, is not my favorite president; he doesn’t even make my top three. But people choose their favorite presidents in our nation’s history based often on the First Executive’s personality, biography or ideological underpinnings. Democrats might choose Franklin Roosevelt or JFK, say; and Republicans will incline toward Lincoln or maybe Reagan. It’s a preference. But let there be no mistake about the most significant president.

If we had to single out one person, a prime mover, who made the American democratic experiment a reality, who ensured a peaceful transference of power every four or eight years, who sowed the seeds for a nation of immigrants bound together not by ethnicity but a noble idea, who perhaps foresaw a country set apart from the ethnic hatreds and religious wars of the Old World, and who substantiates Barack Obama’s inspiring words—if there is such a person, his remains lie inside a marble sarcophagus surrounded by a red brick structure on Mt. Vernon. Henry Lee eulogized Washington with the apt and immortal words: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”