Happy Birthday, George Washington

At the close of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (a play that more correctly should have been titled “Marcus Brutus”), Mark Antony says of the recently deceased Brutus, “This was the noblest Roman of them all.”

If it weren’t for the inconvenient fact that he was an American, not a Roman, this line would even more appropriately be spoken of George Washington, who, more than any actual Roman, embodied the moral ideal of Rome during its republican centuries.  Washington was a patrician (to the degree that there was any such thing in America), a highly successful farmer, a great general, a noble statesman, a totally dedicated patriot. And he was a man of moral rectitude.  In short, he was precisely the kind of man the Romans dreamt of.

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Washington saved his country five times.

1. When as general-in-chief he won the War of Independence. He may not have been a military genius; he was no Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon, not even a General Grant. But he was a Rock of Gibraltar.  He won the war by refusing to lose it.  He held things together until the French arrived to tip the balance.

2. At the end of that eight-year war, he resigned his commission – instead of, as he might have done (as Cromwell did before him and Napoleon did after him) making himself a military dictator. He was a true republican, never more so than when he renounced power.

3. When he chaired the Philadelphia convention of 1787, which drew up a new Constitution that would transform the United States from a loose confederation of states into what Washington saw that it was capable of becoming: a unified nation and a great world power.

4. When, though yearning to live the quiet life of a wealthy farmer, he once again abandoned private life in order twice to accept the call to be president of the new nation.

5. When, though he might easily have been president for life, he voluntarily left the presidency in 1797, thereby emphasizing the fact that in a republic the chief executive is not a king. Like Cincinnatus of old, he went back to his farm.

Never was there a more apt title for a book than the title of James Flexner’s biographical volume about Washington, The Indispensable Man.

In the 2016 presidential election I found that I could vote for neither of the two leading candidates.  I couldn’t vote for Hillary because of her homicidal support for abortion.  I couldn’t vote for Trump because of his utter vulgarity.  So I wrote in the name of George Washington.

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I was familiar with the legend that King Arthur is not really dead; he’s in hiding and will return someday when England really needs him.  So I figured something like this must be true of Washington.  He’s in hiding in a cave in West Virginia and will return someday when America really needs him.  Alas, my vote did not persuade him to leave that cave.

In the 19th century, at least in the decades prior to the Civil War and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln, many Americans held Washington in such high regard (“first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen”) that they were convinced that he was a man particularly selected by God to lead the American people, just as Moses earlier had been particularly selected by God to lead the ancient Hebrews.  We Americans, people felt, are a second “chosen people,” and so we need a new Moses, and so God has given us George Washington.

Nowadays, of course, hardly anybody believes this.  We have grown much more skeptical.  We are less likely to believe in miracles, especially political miracles.

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But I myself don’t find it hard to believe that God gave us George Washington.  After all, if you believe in the existence of God, and if you believe that God, being omnipotent, is able to intervene miraculously in human history, why not?  Is it a mere accident or is it miraculous that one of the most remarkable human beings who ever lived happened to be on the spot in America during the decades of the new nation’s birth?  It seems to me that you have to be either an atheist or a super-skeptic to believe that this was mere accident.

Reading comments on Facebook (a bad addiction of mine, but at least it’s better than being addicted to drugs or alcohol), I often see that his fans hold that President Trump, like Moses and Washington, has been specially chosen by God for leadership.  When I object that Trump lacks the moral virtues of Moses and Washington, and that God would not choose a man so deficient in moral virtues (not to mention his deficiency in good manners), these Trump fans point out that King David was chosen by God despite David’s grave moral deficiencies (adultery, murder).  And some of them also point out that Cyrus the Great of Persia, hardly a saint, was chosen by God to send the Jews back to their homeland.

I’m willing to believe that God might have chosen George Washington. It’s  more difficult for me to believe that he has chosen Donald Trump.  All the same, I think that possibility cannot be totally dismissed.  I mean, if God has the ability to intervene in human history (and can any believer in God deny that he has that ability?), how can we limit his interventions, saying to him, “Look here, God, you can give us Joan of Arc and George Washington, but we forbid you to give us King David or Donald Trump”?

Well, I like Trump better today than I did in 2016.  If I vote for him in 2020 (which I very probably will), I will still continue to hope and pray that someday, by God’s inscrutable will and despite our many sins and failings, we will again see political candidates with something like the virtue and human nobility of our first president.

 

Images:

* George Washington (“Lansdowne” portrait) by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 [National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.]

** Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, 1851 [The MET, New York]

*** George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1780 [The MET, New York]

David Carlin

David Carlin is a retired professor of sociology and philosophy at the Community College of Rhode Island, and the author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America.