|Week of: |
February 20, 2000
|First In the Hearts of His Countrymen
by: F.R. Duplantier
In 1783, a triumphant George Washington resigned his commission as general of the Continental Army and returned to his Mount Vernon farm, little knowing that he would soon be called back to public life to serve as the first President of the United States. In his famous tribute to Washington, written and published that same year, American poet Philip Freneau extolled the hero whose deeds could never be repaid, and who sought no payment for them: "O Washington! thrice glorious name, What due rewards can man decree? Empires are far below thy aim, And scepters have no charms for thee; Virtue alone has your regard, And she must be your great reward. . . ."
Representative Richard Henry Lee, an American hero in his own right, marked the passing of our first president 16 years later. "The founder of our federate republic -- our bulwark in war, our guide in peace -- is no more!" Lee affirmed to his fellow members of Congress on December 26, 1799. His eulogy on Washington, written by Chief Justice-to-be John Marshall, emphasized that the fame of our first President survives, "bounded only by the limits of the earth, and by the extent of the human mind. He survives in our hearts, in the growing knowledge of our children, in the affection of the good throughout the world. . . ."
Washington's fame survives to this day, though greatly diminished by the deliberate neglect and distortion of our heritage. A new book from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, however, featuring essays on Washington by more than a dozen leading scholars, should help restore the luster to his reputation. In a chapter contributed to Patriot Sage, Gary Gregg of the McConnell Center for Political Leadership at the University of Louisville in Kentucky explains the importance of the example set by Washington while serving as our nation's first chief executive. "The questions, the challenges, the opportunities, and the dangers were almost endless," he emphasizes. "At any time, improper precedent could have collapsed the office into irrelevancy or elevated it to nearly despotic heights of authority." Gregg affirms that Washington was "well cognizant of the importance of the situation that fortune had placed about him and the awesome responsibility that weighed upon his shoulders."
Washington's greatest example may have been an act of omission, rather than commission. "In doing the most unnatural of acts, ceding power peacefully, even with relief and reverent joy, he became the symbol of republican restraint," Gregg declares. "In retiring to Mount Vernon after his second term, he became the living symbol of the two-term President, a cultural expectation so powerfully set that no president dared to challenge it for more than 130 years. In the end, because of who he was, when he lived, and how he carried himself in and out of office, he largely became the face of the presidency itself," Gregg concludes. "He became an essential part of our national self-understanding and the major figure of our national lore."
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