Reflections on the Birthday of George Washington

Reflections on the Birthday of George Washington

George Washington as President

Dis­in­ter­est­ed and coura­geous, far-sight­ed and patient, aloof yet direct in man­ner, inflex­i­ble once his mind was made up, George Wash­ing­ton pos­sessed the gifts of char­ac­ter for which the sit­u­a­tion called. He was reluc­tant to accept office. Noth­ing would have pleased him more than to remain in equable but active retire­ment at Mount Ver­non, improv­ing the hus­bandry of his estate.

But, as always, he answered the sum­mons of duty, Gou­verneur Mor­ris was right when he emphat­i­cal­ly wrote to him, “The exer­cise of author­i­ty depends on per­son­al char­ac­ter. Your cool, steady tem­per is indis­pens­ably nec­es­sary to give firm and man­ly tone to the new Government.”

There was much con­fu­sion and dis­cus­sion on titles and prece­dence, which aroused the mock­ing laugh­ter of crit­ics. But the pres­tige of Wash­ing­ton lent dig­ni­ty to the new, untried office. —Win­ston S. Churchill, The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion (1957), 260

It is still Washington’s Birthday

Washington’s Birth­day, Feb­ru­ary 22nd, has been cel­e­brat­ed since 1968 on the third Mon­day of Feb­ru­ary. It was NOT replaced by President’s Day. The lat­ter name more or less oozed for­ward through polit­i­cal and com­mer­cial influ­ences in the 1980s. But George Washington’s Birth­day is still on the books as a Fed­er­al hol­i­day. (Lincoln’s Birth­day is not, though four states still cel­e­brate it.)

The osten­si­ble rea­son for a President’s Day was to make room for Mar­tin Luther King Day, That was fine, but the oth­er two should be reestab­lished. What dif­fer­ence does it make if we take an extra day off a year? We don’t need to cel­e­brate Mil­lard Fill­more, James Buchanan, Andrew John­son, and sev­er­al rather more recent for­get­table pres­i­dents. (Which, in the George Wash­ing­ton spir­it of bipar­ti­san­ship, let’s not both­er to name.)

For­mer Speak­er of the House Newt Gin­grich has post­ed a thought­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of George Wash­ing­ton for his birth­day, 22 Feb­ru­ary. It is not the equal of Churchill’s trib­utes, but nev­er­the­less worth con­sid­er­ing. Often in his pod­casts, the Speak­er acts as a thought­ful sage. What he offers on Washington’s Farewell Address is a reminder that  its mes­sage and words of cau­tion could have writ­ten yes­ter­day. Churchill, writ­ing in the 1950s, also saw that clearly.

Churchill on the Farewell Address

George Washington
The Farewell Address, first pub­lished in Claypoole’s Dai­ly Adver­tis­er, Philadel­phia, 19 Sep­tem­ber 1796. (Nation­al Archives)

Churchill’s take was not what his admir­ers might have expect­ed. A con­firmed inter­na­tion­al­ist, with unshak­able con­fi­dence in Anglo-Amer­i­can part­ner­ship, he seemed unlike­ly to endorse an essen­tial­ly iso­la­tion­ist view.

Of course Wash­ing­ton was writ­ing in 1796, long before the hor­rors of 1914 and 1940. So Churchill’s descrip­tion of the Farewell Address was scrupu­lous­ly uncritical:

This doc­u­ment is one of the most cel­e­brat­ed in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. It is an elo­quent plea for union, a warn­ing against “the bane­ful effects of the Spir­it of Par­ty.” It is also an expo­si­tion of the doc­trine of iso­la­tion as the true future Amer­i­can policy.

“Europe has a set of pri­ma­ry inter­ests, which to us have none, or a very remote rela­tion. Hence she must be engaged in fre­quent con­tro­ver­sies, the caus­es of which are essen­tial­ly for­eign to our con­cerns. Hence there­fore it must be unwise in us to impli­cate our­selves by arti­fi­cial ties in the ordi­nary vicis­si­tudes of her pol­i­tics or the ordi­nary com­bi­na­tions and col­li­sions of her friend­ships or enmities.

“Our detached and dis­tant sit­u­a­tion invites us to pur­sue a dif­fer­ent course…. ’Tis our true pol­i­cy to steer clear of per­ma­nent alliances with any por­tion of the for­eign world…. Tak­ing care always to keep our­selves, by suit­able estab­lish­ments, in a respectable defen­sive pos­ture, we may safe­ly trust to tem­po­rary alliances for extra­or­di­nary emer­gen­cies.” —WSC, The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion, 346-47.

“The just pride of Patriotism”

Speak­er Gin­grich chose oth­er pas­sages from Washington’s Farewell which have a more cur­rent appli­ca­tion. Con­sid­er GW’s plea for patri­o­tism, a nation with­out hyphen­at­ed-Amer­i­cans, unit­ed around a propo­si­tion, not a monarch.** That was unique at the time. It is now some­what more wide­spread. Wash­ing­ton wrote:

The uni­ty of Gov­ern­ment, which con­sti­tutes you one peo­ple, is also now dear to you. It is just­ly so; for it is a main pil­lar in the edi­fice of your real inde­pen­dence, the sup­port of your tran­quil­li­ty at home, your peace abroad; of your safe­ty; of your pros­per­i­ty; of that very Lib­er­ty, which you so high­ly prize, that you should prop­er­ly esti­mate the immense val­ue of your nation­al Union….

For this you have every induce­ment of sym­pa­thy and inter­est. Cit­i­zens, by birth or choice, of a com­mon coun­try, that coun­try has a right to con­cen­trate your affec­tions. The name of Amer­i­can, which belongs to you, in your nation­al capac­i­ty, must always exalt the just pride of Patri­o­tism, more than any appel­la­tion derived from local dis­crim­i­na­tions. With slight shades of dif­fer­ence, you have the same reli­gion, man­ners, habits, and polit­i­cal prin­ci­ples. You have in a com­mon cause fought and tri­umphed togeth­er; the Inde­pen­dence and Lib­er­ty you pos­sess are the work of joint coun­sels, and joint efforts, of com­mon dan­gers, suf­fer­ings, and successes….

How­ev­er com­bi­na­tions or asso­ci­a­tions of the above descrip­tion may now and then answer pop­u­lar ends, they are like­ly, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cun­ning, ambi­tious, and unprin­ci­pled men will be enabled to sub­vert the pow­er of the peo­ple, and to usurp for them­selves the reins of gov­ern­ment; destroy­ing after­wards the very engines, which have lift­ed them to unjust dominion.

“The enterprises of faction”

The First Pres­i­dent, Mr. Gin­grich adds, would have abhorred both the riots of sum­mer 2020 and of 6 Jan­u­ary 2021. To George Wash­ing­ton the rule of law and rights of prop­er­ty, pub­lic or pri­vate, were sacrosanct:

It is req­ui­site, not only that you steadi­ly dis­coun­te­nance irreg­u­lar oppo­si­tions to its acknowl­edged author­i­ty, but also that you resist with care the spir­it of inno­va­tion upon its prin­ci­ples, how­ev­er spe­cious the pre­texts…. remem­ber, espe­cial­ly, that, for the effi­cient man­age­ment of our com­mon inter­ests, in a coun­try so exten­sive as ours, a gov­ern­ment of as much vig­or as is con­sis­tent with the per­fect secu­ri­ty of lib­er­ty is indispensable….

It is, indeed, lit­tle else than a name, where the gov­ern­ment is too fee­ble to with­stand the enter­pris­es of fac­tion, to con­fine each mem­ber of the soci­ety with­in the lim­its pre­scribed by the laws, and to main­tain all in the secure and tran­quil enjoy­ment of the rights of per­son and property.

“Riot and insurrection…sharpened by the spirit of revenge”

Wash­ing­ton feared what is now called Balkanization—a nation dis­solv­ing into inter­est groups. He was aware that uni­ty is frag­ile, quick­ly dimin­ished by tyrants and dem­a­gogues. In mod­ern times we’ve had plen­ty of exam­ples. Mao, Hitler, Stal­in, Kim: the list goes on. The First Pres­i­dent fore­saw them all:

The alter­nate dom­i­na­tion of one fac­tion over anoth­er, sharp­ened by the spir­it of revenge, nat­ur­al to par­ty dis­sen­sion, which in dif­fer­ent ages and coun­tries has per­pe­trat­ed the most hor­rid enor­mi­ties, is itself a fright­ful despo­tism. But this leads at length to a more for­mal and per­ma­nent despotism.

The dis­or­ders and mis­eries which result, grad­u­al­ly incline the minds of men to seek secu­ri­ty and repose in the absolute pow­er of an indi­vid­ual; and soon­er or lat­er the chief of some pre­vail­ing fac­tion, more able or more for­tu­nate than his com­peti­tors, turns this dis­po­si­tion to the pur­pos­es of his own ele­va­tion, on the ruins of Pub­lic Liberty.

Wash­ing­ton didn’t regard that as a cer­tain­ty for Amer­i­ca, but he warned against it:

With­out look­ing for­ward to an extrem­i­ty of this kind, (which nev­er­the­less ought not to be entire­ly out of sight), the com­mon and con­tin­u­al mis­chiefs of the spir­it of par­ty are suf­fi­cient to make it the inter­est and duty of a wise peo­ple to dis­cour­age and restrain it.

It serves always to dis­tract the Pub­lic Coun­cils, and enfee­ble the Pub­lic Admin­is­tra­tion. It agi­tates the Com­mu­ni­ty with ill-found­ed jeal­ousies and false alarms; kin­dles the ani­mos­i­ty of one part against anoth­er, foments occa­sion­al­ly riot and insur­rec­tion; opens the door to for­eign influ­ence and cor­rup­tion, which find a facil­i­tat­ed access to the gov­ern­ment itself through the chan­nels of par­ty pas­sions. Thus the pol­i­cy and the will of one coun­try are sub­ject­ed to the pol­i­cy and will of another.

The end of the beginning

George Washington
Wash­ing­ton by Gilbert Stu­art, 1797. (Crys­tal Bridges Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, pub­lic domain)

George Wash­ing­ton holds one of the proud­est titles that his­to­ry can bestow. He was the Father of his Nation. Almost alone his staunch­ness in the War of Inde­pen­dence held the Amer­i­can colonies to their unit­ed purpose.

His ser­vices after vic­to­ry had been won were no less great…. firm­ness and exam­ple while first Pres­i­dent restrained the vio­lence of fac­tion and post­poned a nation­al schism for 60 years. His char­ac­ter and influ­ence stead­ied the dan­ger­ous lean­ings of Amer­i­cans to take sides against Britain or France.

He filled his office with dig­ni­ty and inspired his admin­is­tra­tion with much of his own wis­dom. To his terms as Pres­i­dent are due the smooth organ­i­sa­tion of the Fed­er­al Gov­ern­ment, the estab­lish­ment of nation­al cred­it, and the foun­da­tion of a for­eign pol­i­cy. By refus­ing to stand for a third term he set a tra­di­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics which has only been depart­ed from by Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt in the Sec­ond World War.

For two years, Churchill concludes,

Wash­ing­ton lived qui­et­ly at his coun­try seat on the Potomac, rid­ing round his plan­ta­tions, as he had long wished to do. Amid the snows of the last days of the 18th cen­tu­ry he took to his bed. On the evening of Decem­ber 14, 1799, he turned to the physi­cian at his side, mur­mur­ing, “Doc­tor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” Soon after­wards he passed away. —WSC, The Age of Rev­o­lu­tion, 347-48


** Pro­fes­sor Allen Guel­zo, in a bril­liant pod­cast on Wash­ing­ton with Dou­glas Mur­ray (see below), elo­quent­ly defines the the unique­ness of the Amer­i­can founding:

Amer­i­cans need their his­to­ry and we argue about it a great deal, and we do that because we don’t have an eth­nic­i­ty. We don’t have a nation­al reli­gion, we don’t have a nation­al lan­guage, we don’t have some­thing that you can point to from cen­turies back….

Amer­i­cans are orga­nized around a propo­si­tion, as Lin­coln said at Get­tys­burg, that all men are cre­at­ed equal. How do you found nation based on a propo­si­tion? In the 1780s and 1790s, peo­ple in Europe rolled around laugh­ing at the idea. How could you have a nation built sole­ly on a com­mit­ment to a series of propo­si­tions based on the Dec­la­ra­tion and the Con­sti­tu­tion? And yet that is what we are….

We are real­ly com­mit­ted to these propo­si­tions, and so we hold our­selves to a very strict and demand­ing stan­dard. We don’t live up per­fect­ly to that stan­dard, and that always cre­ates dis­so­nance…. [But if] Amer­i­cans are a peo­ple cre­at­ed not by race or eth­nic­i­ty or lan­guage or reli­gion but by their alle­giance to a propo­si­tion, then our his­to­ry is the only thing we have which gives us the sto­ries we tell about our­selves, about Wash­ing­ton and Lin­coln and our founding.

Further Reading

George Wash­ing­ton: His Farewell Address, pub­lished 19 Sep­tem­ber 1796.

D. Craig Horn, “Ties That Bind, Part 1, George Wash­ing­ton,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 2022.


Dou­glas Murray’s Uncan­celled His­to­ry, Episode 5: Wash­ing­ton, with Pro­fes­sor Allen Guel­zo, 2022.

Newt Gin­grich, “Washington’s Farewell Address,” 20 Feb­ru­ary 2022.

One thought on “Reflections on the Birthday of George Washington

  1. Bra­vo RL. If you have not yet read it, I high­ly rec­om­mend Cincin­na­tus, George Wash­ing­ton and the Enlight­en­ment: Images of Pow­er in Ear­ly Amer­i­ca, by Gar­ry Wills (1984).

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