The Man Who Would Not Be King

This weekend we celebrate the birthday of America’s most famous quitter.

George Washington is known by all as the first president of the United States and, before that, the commanding general of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

Perhaps the most germane fact about Washington—slightly less-known—is how very grudgingly he assumed both of those roles.  He was America’s original Reluctant Hero.

As a member of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he was nominated for the post of army commander based on his distinguished record during the French and Indian War, as well as for his unquestioned integrity and self-confidence.  He accepted the commission, but insisted all along that he was wholly unqualified for the job.

Following the revolution, Washington returned to civilian life the most beloved man in America, and the gaggle in Philadelphia would have happily anointed him King for Life while the convention hammered out a constitution in the meanwhile.  But Washington preferred to retire to his home in Mount Vernon, which he briefly did.

The idea of being president, as with being general, was very much not of Washington’s own design, but rather was foisted upon him by those who figured there was no finer available specimen—a notion rather thunderously reinforced by his receiving 100 percent of the electoral votes for both of his presidential terms.

After four years, he was utterly prepared to call it a career and go home for good.  However, the emerging political schism between the era’s two major parties, the Republicans and the Federalists, proved enough of a threat to the life of the nascent republic that the mere presence of Washington—a figure who was morally above the fray—looked to be the only thing that could hold the country together.  True to form, Washington took it as his patriotic duty to serve a second term, before finally securing his long-elusive retirement in March of 1797.  (He died on December 14, 1799.)

For his unwavering humility and patriotism in all these endeavors, Washington is often dubbed the Cincinnatus of his day:  A man who is called to power and greatness, but who then relinquishes that authority at the first possible opportunity in exchange for more modest pursuits.

“If he does that,” said King George III of his American counterpart, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”

There is little mystery as to why anyone (let alone the head of the British Empire) would hold such an act in such high regard.  The way most of us scratch and claw to achieve the most minimal wealth and prestige, for someone to purposefully turn away from it seems downright perverse.

If the world offers you a silver spoon, then doggone it, you wrap your lips around it and never let go!  To have the restraint to do otherwise…well, it makes the rest of us look bad.

On this Presidents’ Day, we might turn to our elected leaders of today and wonder:  Are George Washington’s most noble qualities really so out of reach?  Is the idea of selflessly serving one’s country and then gracefully returning to private life really so dead?

In this early stage of the current election cycle, we have already seen an uncommonly high number of sitting congresspersons announcing their retirements at the end of this term.  However, in nearly every case, the given reason is not one of high-minded ideals, but rather of abject disgust and exhaustion regarding the whole governing enterprise.

One after another, senators and representatives have told us that Washington D.C.’s famous dysfunction has spun so wildly out of control that they just can’t take it anymore.  Whether it’s the fault of executive intransigence on the left or Tea Party extremism on the right, the difficult but essential art of governing has become a fool’s errand and is no longer worth their time.

In short, they have given up.

As such, the problem is not merely that most of today’s American leaders have fallen so spectacularly short of Washington’s golden standard.  Rather, it is that they no longer regard it as an ideal in the first place.  They run for office on the promise of doing the people’s hard, grueling work, but when the work proves just too hard and too grueling, they run away.

By resigning in this fashion, our delegates are making the right decisions for the wrong reasons.  And so America has, I fear, left its founding-est father with some very naughty children, indeed.


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