Today is the 281st birthday of George Washington, despite the celebration earlier this week of Presidents Day that honors every chief executive from the Father of His Country to duds like James Buchanan and Warren G. Harding. In our post-modern age, respect for Gen. Washington is seen as sentimental claptrap. I don’t even bring up the myth of Washington, the lie, and the cherry tree with students anymore because I need the remainder of class to explain something that was once common knowledge to students who are hearing about a charming tale with serious cultural implications for the first time.
No matter. One thing worth mentioning about Washington that has nothing to do with gushing emotions is his dedication to the idea of a republic. A military man and Virginia aristocrat, he was used to people obeying when he first spoke. Yet, he dedicated himself to the primacy of civilian government throughout his career as both as an officer and public servant. The U.S. armed forces swear allegiance to the Constitution and the nation — which is by definition the people who share American identity within the nation-state called the United States of America — and take their orders from the commander-in-chief, who is an elected officeholder. The roots of civilian democracy in a modern sense are embodied by Washington’s attitudes and actions. That kind of integrity is rare. No wonder Washington was called “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Here’s an article that explains how Washington exercised his belief in civilian government while facing the very real possibility of a coup during the Revolution led by mutinous officers in the Continental Army. You will appreciate why the man who became our first president had the experience needed to help a young republic survive serious turmoil within our own nation.