In the course of human events, one thing remains certain: We forget. Somewhere over murky time, Washington's Birthday faded away, and was absorbed into another three-day holiday with no distinguishing marks except maybe ... Giant Sales! It is the American way. By celebrating all presidents equally on some made-up Presidents' Day, we now celebrate none in particular. Definition is lost; a generalized fuzz takes the place of the history that made us. And we forget.
We forget what it was like the winter after the Declaration of Independence was proclaimed, and how all its brave words began to sound hollow as defeat followed defeat.
Crossing the Delaware, Washington's column emerged on the Jersey side, overrunning the enemy camp, taking hundreds of prisoners before crossing back into Pennsylvania with their prisoners and new caches of supplies. Then they crossed the river again to continue the fight. Sending in reinforcements, Lord Cornwallis must have been sure he had the old fox bagged. Instead, it was Washington who had him, defeating the British at Trenton and, for good measure, routing their rear guard at Princeton, too.
At the moment when the whole American experiment was in peril, Washington would defy not just the enemy but despair. Not just once but again and again, in war and peace and in between.
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Historians used to have a name for the uncertain years between the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution: the critical period. For nothing so disorganizes an army, or even a country, as victory. America had finally freed itself from the British Empire, but it would be years before it would overcome the centrifugal forces that kept the United States of America from becoming united states.
As the woefully weak government under the old Articles of Confederation proved inadequate to deal with one challenge after another, the no longer young general would watch with growing concern as the nascent Union foundered. British troops refused to leave frontier forts in accordance with the peace treaty, the national currency grew worthless, the economy faltered, trade was paralyzed. The new government, largely paralyzed because it required the unanimous consent of all the states to act, was powerless to reverse the trend. Mobs marched and a rebellion flared in Massachusetts.
The leader who by now had surrendered the stage to others would not just sit back and look on as his country melted away. Once again he would change everything, and save his country. To form a new, more perfect Union, he convened an assemblage of the most sagacious statesmen of his generation. As he told the delegates at the outset of their deliberations at Philadelphia in the fateful summer of 1787: "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair."
They did. The result of their labors would be what a British statesman of some note, William Ewart Gladstone, would call "the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man" -- the Constitution of the United States.
Washington would preside over the birth of that remarkable and still living charter that orders our liberty. His presence at the head of the constitutional convention gave it a moral authority no one else could have supplied.
At the heart of this new Constitution there was envisioned a singular office: President of the United States. There can be no doubt about the provenance of a strong, unitary American presidency. It was modeled after, inspired by, and designed for just one man: George Washington. It is an office created in his image, and he would become its first occupant.
The first president of the United States would proceed to appoint a cabinet that contained two of the most brilliant, mercurial and completely opposed leaders ever to serve together: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
Surely only a Washington could have kept those two geniuses pulling in the same direction. Avoiding the impetuosity of both, the wartime hero managed to keep the peace with the two greatest, and warring, powers of his day, Great Britain and France -- no mean feat. The victorious general would also prove a prudent and far-seeing statesman. In critical period after critical period.
When it came time to lay down the burdens of office, and return at last to the private life so long denied him, Washington would leave his country a final gift: his farewell address. In it, he foresaw the dangers of the divisive passions which could imperil "that very liberty which you so highly prize." His words remain as relevant now as when he uttered them in farewell.
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First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, Washington was also first in daring and in wisdom, in judgment and execution, which is why Americans still need to heed his counsel.
(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)