Poor Elijah spent Presidents’ Day weekend reading about American heroes. Our current president, Donald Trump, divided his time between taking a few Daytona laps in his armored limousine, interfering in the sentencing of a political crony, targeting a federal judge, intimidating a juror and laying out his intention to pervert the justice system. He rounded off the week with a rash of pardons and commutations for a bouquet of convicted, corrupt politicians and business felons.
Being a history teacher and a citizen in these trying times, it’s hard not to find myself drawn back to those heroes of the past, especially the mortals we honor as the founders. I tell myself I harbor no illusions about them, but I’m sure I still do, despite all the pages I keep turning. I do know, though, and I teach, that they were imperfect men, from their shame as slaveholders to their common human frailties and sometimes vaulting ambition.
They weren’t above maneuvering to appoint partisan judges. Their media, the press, was nakedly biased. While Jefferson was serving as Washington’s Secretary of State, he paid the editor of his party’s opposition newspaper with State Department public funds.
They weren’t marble men.
They were making it up as they went along.
They made mistakes.
And sometimes they made deliberate mistakes.
Yet, with all those acknowledged faults, were they to appear in our present day, I suspect they would be alarmed, outraged and disappointed with the man in Washington’s seat and with those who serve him.
I can’t be sure, of course. I’m not a seer. In some measure, my speculation about what they would think reflects my own alarm, outrage and disappointment. But, at the same time, my thoughts are shaped by comparing them to us, their words and their deeds, and especially, by placing the man who was President Washington beside the man who is President Trump.
I don’t mean in a pollster sense. Last December, 30% of surveyed Americans rated Trump a better president than Washington, which is at once sad and ridiculous.
I mean a comparison of character.
Let me show you a glimpse of George Washington, but not his courage in battle, or his perseverance at Valley Forge. Let me tell you another story.
Throughout the Revolution, the Continental Army was chronically underfed and unpaid. Washington knew, and felt, his soldiers’ hardships. He lived with them and in eight years of war, spent just one night at home, on the march to Yorktown. But he also bore a commander’s responsibility to maintain good order and discipline. The Revolution depended on preserving the army.
His constant letters to Congress on his soldiers’ behalf brought little, and often nothing, by way of support, and he several times faced rebellions among his troops. On one occasion, he granted the rebels a last-minute reprieve from death. On another, the mutineers’ lives were spared, but they were compelled to serve as a firing squad to execute the leader of their mutiny.
The most challenging insurgence erupted in the closing months of the war while the treaty was negotiated in Paris. Washington and the army were encamped in Newburgh, north of New York City. This time, Washington’s officers, armed with their grievances and the might of the army, threatened to march on Philadelphia and overthrow Congress, with many intending to install Washington as their king.
Washington appeared unexpectedly at a meeting of his officer corps. He reminded them that he’d lived and fought at their side from the beginning. He pleaded with them to oppose any man who urged the overthrow of the civil government, that “humanity revolts at the idea” that they would turn and take up arms against their country. He appealed to their better nature. He urged their continued faithful service and patience, and he assured them their “dignity” and “glorious example” would inspire generations of their countrymen.
They listened, yet despite their respect for their general, most remained unpersuaded. He next began to read them a letter from Congress, but after stumbling over the text, he stopped a few sentences in and reached into his pocket. “Gentlemen,” he explained in a rare moment of vulnerability, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have grown not only gray but nearly blind in service to my country.”
The rebellion died.
Washington was never king, and for refusing America’s crown, George III declared him “the greatest man in the world.”
Do you believe Donald Trump would refuse a crown? Or would he be only too willing to exchange Washington’s seat for a throne?
I think we both know the answer.
Washington appeals to our sense of duty. He touches our conscience. His example of sacrifice moves us as it moved his men.
Wouldn’t it be refreshing in this politically sordid day to be addressed in such a way by such a leader?
A nation that grows accustomed to lies soon becomes blind to the truth.
A nation that pardons unrepentant felons and punishes public servants soon is left with no one to serve it but scoundrels.
A nation that glorifies pettiness ceases to be a great nation.
A leader who demands personal loyalty above faithfulness to the law is himself disloyal.
Do you miss a leader who cares enough to learn what he doesn’t know, who puts his people’s welfare above his own gain?
Do you yearn for a day free of fresh iniquity?
Do you miss simple honesty and dignity and modesty?
We have thrown down our ideals and traded them for a scowling, preening, self-absorbed incompetent. Wherever we permit him to go, we will go, too.
Our founders left us with legends born of truth and true ideals. The way we govern ourselves day to day, what we see and what we accept, reminds us what those ideals are.
Our peril isn’t that we sometimes fall short. Our peril lies in the human reality that as our ideals erode and stagger under assault, as they vanish from daily sight, we forget what those ideals are — or were.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. He lives in Mount Holly.