Presidents' Day

George Washington: Still First In our Hearts?

By Sam Johnson

     "I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

    
"His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order...and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder....

    
"He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern.

    
"Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed....

    
"His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible; no motives of interest, friendship or hatred being able to bias his decision...

    
"He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man."

                            --Thomas Jefferson, 1814

         Tuesday is George Washington's birthday; a day once celebrated with great fanfare and eloquent speeches about the man who was "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
        
It has been a long time since we have so honored this founding father. We used to have a special day set aside just for him, but in recent years, the observance of Washington's birthday has been relegated to a generic government holiday called "President's Day," giving federal employees a 3-day mini-vacation, and merchants the opportunity for a "SELLabration" of their own that has nothing to do with honoring "the father of our country."
        
It's difficult to say exactly what the cultural results of this generic holiday are, but ask young people what they know about George Washington and you will likely get responses such as: "he chopped down a cherry tree," "he couldn't tell a lie," "he's on the dollar bill," "he's the father of our country," "he was our first President," "he threw a silver dollar across a river."
    
    They might also mention something about bare feet at Valley Forge, crossing the Delaware, and maybe Mount Vernon, but that's about the extent of it.
    
    The legend looms larger than the man.

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         Few young people can tell you even the basic story of George Washington. How this gentleman farmer from Virginia with no great education ("merely reading, writing and common arithmetic to which some surveying was later added") left his plantation to represent Virginia in the first Continental Congress, then became Commander in Chief of the Continental Army and "led a rag-tag bunch of ill-equipped and poorly trained soldiers through 8 years of bitter fighting to glorious victory and eventual independence."
    
    After the last bunch of the British troops left the colonies, Washington resigned his command of the army and served as president of the Constitutional Convention to help formulate a document that would empower a new system of government and change the course of history.
        
Faced with the opportunity to become the first American monarch and enjoy a great deal of power, "His Excellency" (as he was addressed in letters and in person) rejected the idea. However, with the unanimous selection by convention delegates, Washington agreed to become president of the newly formed constitutional government with its system of checks and balances -- a position of limited power he graciously relinquished after 2 terms (a tradition that lasted until FDR) though he likely could have served as president for life had he so desired, and some suggested should have been elected "King of the American Colonies."
        
Though George Washington did not single-handedly win the war for independence, enact the Constitution, or establish our democratic system of government, he was at the very center of those developments and played an important role in bringing them about.
        
As Jefferson rightly noted, the contributions of George Washington are "worthy of everlasting remembrance. For his was the singular destiny and merit of leading the armies of this country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government new in form and principles."
        
"On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great."
        
Perhaps he deserves more attention from us on "Presidents' Day."
        
Anyway, I'll be thinking about that as I head over to the Senior Center for a piece of their Presidents' Day cherry pie!


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