America’s Founding Fathers have interested me for as long as I can remember, but over the past few months my fascination has evolved into a full-fledged obsession. There’s no real mystery to this: In light of the prospective political leaders we are faced with today, it’s only natural to want to retreat into the 18th century until the 2016 election draws to a close.
As I make my way through Ron Chernow’s epic 2010 biography of George Washington—this after having (finally) gotten around to Chernow’s improbably chic bestseller Alexander Hamilton—I am reminded, with startling clarity, that the men who created this great country were at once infinitely better and infinitely worse than we tend to give them credit for—intellectually superior to their 21st century counterparts, yet cursed with the same crippling moral and temperamental deficiencies. Human beings in every sense of the word.
From Chernow’s Washington: A Life, we find that perhaps the most salient personal quality of our first commander-in-chief was his self-restraint. As it turns out—based on multiple firsthand accounts—George Washington possessed an explosive temper throughout his adult life that, if left unchecked, was liable to alienate friends and enemies alike and—given Washington’s unique position in society—imperil the very existence of the United States of America.
As such, Washington’s great psychological achievement—particularly during the Revolutionary War—was to suppress the urge to act out and inflict his wrath upon others. To conduct himself with an equanimity and gravitas befitting a man whom virtually all Americans viewed as a role model, if not a savior. To act—dare I say?—presidential.
To be sure, as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington had every cause to let his anger and frustration run rampant, from drunk and disorderly troops to disloyal officers to a feckless Congress to an overpowering British adversary. Indeed, acute aggravation would’ve been the natural, rational response to all of those setbacks and more, and few would’ve begrudged Washington for flying into a rage and saying what he really thought (in his private correspondence, he did exactly that).
And yet, because he understood that the fate of a nation depended upon a unified army held together by a strong, courageous leader, Washington somehow rose above the fray, mastering his emotions and willing himself into the unflappable icon that he is today.
To marinate in the details of Washington’s exploits is to understand why he is considered the greatest and most indispensable American who ever lived: Because he always put the public good ahead of any personal considerations. Rather than indulging his own interests—there were many to choose from—he forwarded the interests of a country that, through eight-plus years of war, didn’t even technically exist. Although he had every incentive and desire to hang back and tend to his family and plantation—a property that encompassed 6,500 acres and 317 slaves—when duty called, he chose to risk everything in service to a noble cause.
Of course, it would be completely unfair to condemn any of our current political figures for not living up to George Washington’s impossibly high standard of statesmanship. In the 216 years since Washington’s death, only a handful of individuals have even come close.
Yet with someone like Donald Trump, it is both fair and imperative to notice how supremely un-Washington-like this particular presidential candidate is—how Trump seems to embody the exact opposite of everything that made Washington so essential to the life of our young republic.
Most obvious of all, perhaps, is how thoroughly Trump has dismissed the notion of quiet dignity as being a necessary and admirable quality in a modern-day commander-in-chief.
Banking his entire candidacy on being a boorish, foul-mouthed windbag—recklessly voicing every half-formed thought that passes through his brain—Trump has espoused an abject indifference toward acting in any way “presidential,” mocking virtues like silence and moderation as the refuge of weak-willed sissies. When challenged by reporters as to whether he will ever start behaving like a grown-up, his response—“I can be presidential, but […] it would be boring as hell”—had all the credibility of a teenager staring at a Picasso and scoffing, “I could do that—if I felt like it.”
In fact, Trump has neither the interest nor the discipline to elevate his public persona into the realm of respectability. Unlike Washington, he is constitutionally incapable of reining himself in—as demonstrated by his failure to do so for more than a few minutes at a time before reverting back to his true self.
If, instead, we are to entertain the odd theory that Trump’s entire life up to now has been an elaborate performance and that he will magically acquire maturity upon assuming high office, we should note that it took George Washington many years and much soul-searching to shed his rougher edges in public, and that when he was as old as Trump is now, he’d been dead for two years.
As if that weren’t enough, Trump has effected another direct negation of Washingtonian class through his breathtaking propensity for vanity and naked self-promotion.
Although George Washington was a deeply ambitious man—someone who saved all of his papers in the hope they would ensure his immortality—whenever he assumed a position of high authority, he took meticulous care in removing even the appearance of having done so in self-interest or for personal gain. By declining large salaries and exhibiting profound reluctance in undertaking the monumental roles he was offered, Washington made it plain that public service was a wholly laudable and often thankless vocation—a means of attaining eternal glory, to be sure, but by no means an avenue to material rewards or even a decent pension.
Indeed, there were few things in life that Washington found more repulsive than people who openly boasted about their own abilities and character and expressed unbounded enthusiasm for securing personal and professional advancement. To him, ambition of any sort was something to be kept carefully hidden from public view, lest one be thought to care only about oneself and not the fortunes of the country at large.
The operative term here is honor. In an epoch when personal clashes would occasionally be resolved on the dueling ground (see: Hamilton v. Burr), public figures were quite scrupulous about what they said in public, knowing that a misplaced slight could result in death and disgrace. It has been noted that, were we living in such a time now, Trump’s ridiculous tussle with Ted Cruz over their wives’ looks would’ve been textbook grounds for such a confrontation, but in truth, nearly every remark by the presumptive Republican nominee would fail the standard of chivalry established throughout the 18th century and beyond. (Then again, why should we blame Trump for exploiting a culture that allows this sort of nonsense to occur?)
I mentioned that not all of our founders’ qualities were superior to our own—and not only those relating to the crime of owning and controlling fellow human beings. As inspiring as George Washington’s bravery and rectitude surely are, it is equally compelling to learn, for instance, that when it came to matters of business and real estate, he was a cold, lustful, ruthless tyrant.
Hungry for land and provisions at the lowest possible price, Washington snatched up tens of thousands of acres across Western Pennsylvania as soon as they became available, enacting swift measures against any squatters who tried to occupy them without paying rent. Indeed, Great Britain’s harsh restrictions and unfair prices on frontier real estate were just as much of a motivating factor in Washington’s revolutionary zeal as were the more lofty ideals of life, liberty and self-determination.
In a fashion, all of this enterprising and speculation was a product of simple greed—the same singular driving force behind the actions of one Donald Trump. In his private affairs, Washington exhibited a single-mindedness toward enhancing his personal wealth that we have come to loathe in the business leaders of today.
For all Washington said and wrote about wanting to end slavery once and for all, he—like virtually every other southern planter—couldn’t figure out how to emancipate his own slaves without risking total financial ruin. In the end, the latter was more important to him than the former, leading him to free his slaves, but only upon his death, i.e. the moment his own personal comfort ceased being a concern.
Here, at least, is an area in which Donald Trump emerges one step ahead of the Father of His Country: Whatever Trump’s true net worth, at least a teeny, tiny fraction of it goes directly to his work force.