A special rogues’ gallery at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s Virginia estate, displays portraits of three revolutionary leaders who went astray. Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon are portrayed as heroes with clay feet who toppled tyrannies only to grab absolute power for themselves. Washington was different, it is asserted. In guides’ commentaries and schoolboy-friendly action films (featuring artificial snow flurries and seats that throb with cannon fire) Mount Vernon rams home the message that America’s revolutionary commander-in-chief and first president had a genius for well-timed exits. A display depicts him resigning his military commission after biffing the British. The chair in which he decided to retire as president is pointed out as a national treasure. Washington’s supreme virtue, it is suggested—greater even than martial derring-do—was knowing when to leave, ensuring his country’s future as a civilian republic.
There is something to this: throughout his career, self-abnegation was Washington’s shtick. Tall, dashing and posher than most revolutionary leaders, he maintained a pose of “Who, me?” astonishment when called to big jobs, loudly yearning for retirement beneath the “vine and fig tree” at his Virginia estates.
But the conventional view of Washington omits something crucial: he was a politician, too. Though they put his face on the dollar and his bust on countless pedestals, Americans seem to have forgotten this fact. The mythology of the first president obscures the lessons he might teach to the current inhabitants of the city that bears his name.
This is a shame. In today’s politics, 1776 feels about five minutes ago. It is not just that at conservative rallies, chaps in tricorn hats and knee breeches are a staple. Republican speeches ring with warnings from Madison about the need to bind government power, as long as men are not ruled by angels. Jefferson, as a shrink-the-government radical, is a hero of the libertarian right. Mitt Romney’s 2012 running-mate, Paul Ryan, built his campaign on Jeffersonian talk of American rights coming from God and nature, not government. Over on the left, civil-liberties types cherish Jefferson too, citing his hatred of censorship and hostility to state-sponsored religion. Washington is seldom cited.
Yet he had views that still resonate, and set precedents that can be felt to this day. Like other military chiefs who enter politics, he was a national-security hawk with a wariness of war. He favoured neutrality over permanent alliances and foreign entanglements. He was a fiscal conservative, urging his country to spend and borrow sparingly rather than burden future generations. But unlike today’s tea-partiers, he did not despise taxation; he called it unpleasant but vital. As president he dispatched 13,000 militiamen to suppress an anti-tax uprising by whiskey-making farmers (putting modern grumbles about bullying by the IRS into perspective).
He had his vanities and hypocrisies. An irregular churchgoer, he urged religion on others as a prop for morality. Over slavery, the great evil of his day, he trimmed and hedged. As a gentleman farmer, he arranged for his slaves to be freed, but only after his death and that of his widow. As a politician fearing for national unity, he was willing to see abolition postponed for another day.
Long before Barack Obama appealed for Americans to resist division into blue and red states, Washington expressed a horror of party politics. Rather like Mr Obama, the first president’s pious neutrality was a bit of a sham. He governed an America divided between champions of individual liberty and states’ rights, and those favouring a more collective approach. Washington sided with order and federal authority, urging citizens—in effect—to see the government as “us”, rather than a distant, tyrannical “them”. If transposed to modern politics, it is easy to imagine Washington as a patrician Republican, representing Virginia in the Senate and facing a primary challenge from the tea party.
Keepers of the flame at Mount Vernon have a plan for restoring Washington-the-politician to view. Near his colonnaded mansion they are building him what they call a “presidential library”, in a nod to the 13 presidential libraries that serve as archives, think-tanks and shrines to America’s recent ex-chiefs, in a tradition begun by Franklin Roosevelt. Opening in September, it will technically be a “National Library”, reflecting Mount Vernon’s status as a private museum not funded by government.
But its creators talk of promoting their hero “aggressively”. Scholars are to be offered unprecedented access to Washington’s papers and a writers’ retreat on the grounds. Public interest is being wooed with Washington’s annotated copy of the constitution and early acts of Congress, currently on a tour of the modern presidential libraries: a tour also intended to forge bonds between Mount Vernon and that library network.
Rescuing Washington from his pedestal
Just 15 miles down the Potomac river from the Capitol, the estate is a fine place for bipartisan reflection, says Mount Vernon’s president, Curt Viebranz. In an early experiment a gang of eight senators—four Republicans and four Democrats—headed to Mount Vernon in October 2012 to chew over a deficit-reduction plan acceptable to both parties, alas without result. Further such political meetings and retreats are planned.
Washington predicted that partisans would try to set Americans against each other, allowing an “enterprising minority” to hijack the delegated will of the nation. Yet Americans share fundamental manners, habits and political principles, he said in his farewell address as president. There was a whiff of paternalism to the old soldier’s views. But that larger point is still true. Americans are often more united than politicians pretend. A dose of the first president’s sense might do Washington, DC much good.