Washington’s Birthday (Observed)

Richard Brookhiser tells a nice story:

Washington also knew how to handle his friends, sometimes a harder task. By the time he retired, he had become convinced that Thomas Jefferson and his friends would drive America off a cliff if they ever came to power. But Jefferson, then vice president, was the darling of Virginia. Washington tried to encourage Virginians who shared his views to run for office. One of the men he thought of was John Marshall, a bright Richmond lawyer who had served under him as a captain in the Revolution.

Washington invited Marshall to Mount Vernon in 1799 to make his pitch. Marshall idolized Washington, but he wanted to make money, and tried to beg off. Washington would not let him. Marshall finally concluded that he would have to escape from Mount Vernon at day break. He found when he got up, however, that Washington had gotten up earlier, and donned his Revolutionary uniform. Marshall obeyed orders, and began the career that would make him, in less than two years, chief justice.

Why Washington is not just the greatest President, but perhaps the greatest American, ever: he resigned.

Consider all the times that Washington put service before self.

In 1775, when he accepted command of the Continental Army, he promised Congress that he would resign his commission when the war was over. Once the British withdrew, he was true to his word, and surrendered command of an army fiercely loyal to him. In a moving scene before Congress on December 23, 1783 (then assembled in Annapolis, Maryland), Washington pledged loyalty to the civilian government he had served. He thereby established the principle that our nation’s military would always be under civilian rule.

Earlier in the 1780s, Washington had been approached twice by army officers who promised their support if he decided to seize civilian power. In one famous incident in 1782, Col. Lewis Nicola wrote a letter urging Washington to overthrow Congress and become America’s king. The commanding general scolded Nicola the very same day.

In 1783, Washington caught wind of officers wanting to stage a coup d’état against Congress. The so-called Newburgh Conspirators were frustrated that Congress was not paying them what had been promised when the nation desperately needed their sacrifice. Washington would not be moved — that die would not be cast. On the Ides of March, he called the men together and sternly reprimanded them for losing faith in the idea of America. The new nation had a chance to succeed only if its leaders and military adhered to the rule of law.

When King George III heard that Washington would resign his commission to a powerless Congress, he told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Washington returned home to Mount Vernon in December 1783. Like Cincinnatus, he put down his sword and took up his plow, making him the most trusted man in America. Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 selected him to be their president, knowing he would not abuse his position to aggrandize himself. And a grateful nation unanimously elected him president of the United States in 1789 and again in 1792, because they knew he would devote all his energies to serving the new nation.

Washington, when convinced that he had done all he could to help the country, retired after two terms as president. True to principle, he relinquished the power that was his for the taking. It was an example of selfless leadership that inspires Americans and the world to this day. Why don’t more American children know that?

George Washington, the indispensible man, without whomo we would not have a country. Let’s make sure to remember that although many call this “President’s Day,” it really should be honored as Washington’s Birthday.

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