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George Washington — True Father of the Nation

Friday, 15 May 2009 04:53 PM

By James Humes

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For the February 1790 issue of the "Pennsylvania Farmers Almanac," editor Francis Bailey decided to honor President Washington’s 58th birthday on Feb. 22 by featuring a woodcut of Washington.

Under it he had these words printed: “Father of his Country.” Bailey, an ancestor of mine, was the first to put the patriarchal description of Washington into print. (Bailey, a former partner of Benjamin Franklin, would later that year be executor of Franklin’s will when Franklin died.)

This year marks the 200th birthday of Lincoln. Lincoln was born a decade after Washington died. Lincoln’s hero growing up was George Washington. One of his most loved books was Parson Weem’s "The Life of General Washington." Lincoln read and re-read the borrowed book in his loft by candlelight until the April rains in 1823 seeped through the logs and ruined the book. Yet one page remained intact in the damaged book. The last page featured a woodcut of Washington before a tombstone labeled Valley Forge and underneath it nine words, “That these dead shall not have died in vain.”

Lincoln had to pay the neighboring farmer for the book by removing stumps from an acre of land. But now he owned the ruined book, and those nine words would etch a permanence in his heart. Forty years later, in Gettysburg, he would repeat those words in his cemetery address.

If Lincoln preserved the Union, Washington fathered it.

Without Washington, a Continental Army would not have been mobilized. Both John Hancock and John Adams believed that it was necessary to give the colonies’ most distinguished officer, Virginia Col. Washington, the command of the Continental Congress. The selection, they figured, might bring the Tory-leaning South into the rebellion.

Only the towering presence of Gen. Washington kept the Continental Army in the field. If Churchill in World War II inspired his men in the field by his eloquence, Washington did so with his character.

Perhaps the Continental soldiers would not have walked over hot coals for him, but in Valley Forge, many shoeless soldiers did tread over ice.

History may have known greater military strategists than Washington, but Washington’s resolute presence and his army outlasted the British, who were separated from their homeland by the Atlantic Ocean and thousands of miles.

Almost any general except one with the character of Washington would have accepted the role of king that his troops would push upon him. A monarchy in the late 18th century was the natural order of government.

Washington in Newburgh, N.Y., in 1781, made it clear he had no interest in a throne, and a few years later he rode from Mt. Vernon to Brandywine, southwest of Philadelphia, asking the troops to disband who were readying to march on Philadelphia to demand back pay from the Philadelphia Congress.

Without a Washington, there may not have been a Constitutional Convention. The United States already had a charter of government, the Articles of Confederation. The gathering of delegates might have been a rump session of dubious legality had not Washington agreed to preside over it. This very act gave it the legal stamp of approval to the Convention.

The convention’s conception of a “president” as an elected “king” was crafted with Washington in mind.

The presidency owes much to the first man who held the office of president. Almost every recent successful president from Roosevelt to Reagan has emulated Washington.

Obama has chosen Lincoln as his model, but Lincoln only assumed his mythical greatness after his martyred death. Washington projected that magisterial presence while alive. Lincoln, as president, lacked the charisma of Washington, which is Obama’s singular feature.

Only a chief executive with the prestige of a Washington could have kept the new nation from taking sides in the conflict between Britain and France. Pro-French mobs actually marched against Washington’s presidential residence in Philadelphia.

Finally, in what may be the least appreciated accomplishment of Washington, was his decision not to run for a third term and so let a presidential election determine his successor. The result was the first democratic transition of the executive office in the world. By not dying as a king would while holding the supreme power, he established a precedent for democrats.

The log-cabin-born Lincoln, no doubt, personifies the ideals of our democracy, but the aristocratic Washington did the most to establish that democracy.

Professor James C. Humes is the Schuck fellow of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. A former White House speechwriter, he was a former Woodrow Wilson Scholar at the Center for International Scholars at the Smithsonian.

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