When we’re young, we often learn about people who are supposed to be our heroes. We’re told about their lives, their deeds, and the various ways in which they’ve accomplished their heroic task(s). It is a mythic time, and we enjoy the fun.
Then of course we get a little older, and we learn in school or college that the supposedly heroic people of history we used to worship were flawed. Made mistakes. And, in many cases, we find that the stories we learned about them were either heavily nuanced and simply fabricated.
For the professional historian, this kind of disillusionment can be even more profound. It is a part of our academic discipline to be suspicious about narrative that are too cute by a half.
Our nation’s first president is so ubiquitous and revered that I had largely ignored him, thinking that no one man could live up to the legends surrounding him. Visions of cherry trees and truth-telling were a bit too much for me, I thought, and while Washington did help our nation at the start, he was simply a popular symbolic placeholder in the role of our nation’s first President.
While it is true that Washington–at that time and since–was a popular symbol of the American spirit, he was no dimwitted placeholder. What I’ve learned this summer is that he was a very thoughtful man, carefully inhabiting the office of our nation’s executive branch and realizing that every action he took or decision he made would be creating precedents that would be following over the long course of our nation’s history.
While the popular notion that Washington turned down an offer to become “king” seems a bit of a stretch, what is true is that as a popular general in the aftermath of the Revolution he probably could have gotten whatever he wanted. When elected he could have assume near-royal trappings, could have become President for life, and in general run roughshod over everyone else. He didn’t. Purposely. With thought and care, he realized that the new government was fragile and the Republic uncertain, so he therefore shepherded it well. For that, I think, he is a real hero.
Washington wasn’t perfect, and towards the end of his administration and his final years of life he was a bit more politically partisan. Even so, the helpful actions he took in the years after the Revolution and as President to lay down the track upon which the train of state and the course of our nation would follow are something for which all of us ought to be grateful.
This notion of precedent setting and pattern establishing is worth remembering today, not only in politics but in our own lives as well.