Today is Presidents Day. By Act of Congress it is Washington’s Birthday. President Obama recently invited reporters into his kitchen and told them he the first president since George Washington to brew spirits in the White House. He was quickly corrected: George Washington laid the cornerstone for the White House, but he never lived to set foot in it.
I am more interested in distilling the spirit of George Washington than in his distilling of spirits. George Washington was described in a famous eulogy by Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” He was viewed by Americans for most of our 238 years as the greatest of presidents.
Arguably, Lincoln is the only serious competition as our greatest president. But that first great American Chief is always there setting the standard.
It is no exaggeration to say Washington was the most unifying of our presidents. Who else could win the nation’s highest office with back-to-back unanimous votes in the Electoral College? Thomas Jefferson pleaded with Washington to serve for (he never had to run for) a second term.“North and South will hang together if they have you to hang on,” Mr. Jefferson wrote to President Washington. Even that early, in 1792, the specter of disunion loomed.
Abraham Lincoln was the most divisive of our presidents. That does not diminish his standing, And it says more about us than about him. Still, it must be acknowledged. What other presidential election could have sparked a bloody four-year Civil War?
We can certainly thank God it did not come to that in the disputed 1876 election between Tilden and Hayes. In the 1960 cliff-hanger between Kennedy and Nixon, the winner’s margin was only 114,000 in popular votes. In the famous instance of Bush v. Gore in 2000, 537 votes in Florida and a Supreme Court ruling determined the outcome.
Through all of this, George Washington was the model. He certainly was for Abraham Lincoln. Young Abe read Parson Weems’ biography as a boy. And when as President-elect he departed Springfield for Washington, D.C. in 1861, he told his loving neighbors he knew not when, nor whether, he would see them again.
The task before him, he sadly noted, was greater than that shouldered by great Washington. It was. And that word “whether” proved to be prophetic. Lincoln never again saw his Springfield neighbors.
My favorite image of President Barack Obama remains The New Yorker cover from January 2009 that welcomed his first inauguration. He was hailed as “First.” He was.
Enslavement of Black Americans has rightly been called our nation’s “original sin.” The Founders struggled with it. How to gradually emancipate the slaves without sparking a race war was a question that haunted them. How could they prepare slaves for freedom so that they did not wind up like sailors suddenly given a wild liberty? How could they persuade white Americans to accept their fellow Americans of African descent as full and equal citizens?
Barack Obama in 2009 had a God-given opportunity to knit together the frayed fabric of America. He might have overcome the bitter divisions of Red State and Blue State, of liberal and conservative. He spoke of Americans in “flyover country” as people who would cling to their guns and their religion. It was for him as cutting a comment as dismissing 47% of the electorate.
He never looked to the Founders, or to Lincoln, for that matter, as a guide. He seems to resent the Founders for their failure to solve the slavery question. He coldly dismissed the Constitutional Convention:
“I could not have walked through that front door.”
Most historians agree with that harsh assessment, regrettably. But I am not so sure. If young Barack Obama had arrived in Philadelphia, at the First Continental Congress, as a graduate of Harvard, and walking into the Old State House arm-in-arm with John and Samuel Adams, he might just have gained entry. The Secretary of Continental Congress was the Evangelical, Charles Thomson, an opponent of slavery. Or, had this Columbia University graduate been elected along with the staunchly anti-slavery Alexander Hamilton from New York State, he might have been admitted as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. An anti-slavery spirit was moving among the delegates from most of the northern states in the 1780s. They might have seen an intelligent and eloquent young Barack Obama as a key ally in their efforts to eradicate what almost all then considered a stumbling block for on our claims to represent “A New Order of the Ages.”
George Washington was a slaveholder. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in serene silence as his good friend Gouverneur Morris denounced slavery. Witty, urbane Morris condemned as “a curse of Heaven” upon all those states that continued to be shackled to it. Perhaps Morris’ stinging words moved Washington to free his slaves in his will.
Might the whole horror of the Civil War—with its 630,000 dead and its vast destruction of property—have been avoided if only every slaveholder had followed George Washington’s splendid example and voluntarily freed his slaves? Washington’s own motto—Deeds, not Words—could have been their inspiration. See what he did.
Barack Obama seems unwilling to give a presidential pardon to any of the Founders. He has an idea for “fundamentally transforming this country.” And he’s dead set on achieving it by any means necessary.
I’ve always found the “Progressives’” angry criticisms of the Founders on the slavery question more than a little hypocritical. The Founders tried, failed, and tried again and again to find a way out.
Today’s Progressives know that unborn children are human beings. Joe Klein told them so in TIME Magazine in 2012. “Ultra-sound has made it impossible to deny that that thing in the womb is a human being,” the liberal journalist wrote. Progressives like President Obama, however, live in that denial every day.
George Washington wanted the promise of freedom extended “to millions yet unborn.” He did his best personally and politically to fulfill that promise. When Progressives in the 1920s began their angry assaults on George Washington’s historic reputation, President Calvin Coolidge just pointed out his office window at his Monument: “He’s still there.”