Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Our George

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.

From Washington's Farewell Address. Go and read the whole thing on the man's birthday.

And remember, when the Founders start to talk about "virtue" and "morality," don't turn away with visions of James Dobson in your head. They meant something closer to self-sacrifice, compassion, public service, and high-minded patriotism -- good, sound human virtues that ought to resonate with any gender, sexuality, party, class, race, or creed. Gertrude Himmelfarb has ably defined the classical idea of "virtue" as "the will and capacity to put the public interest over the private."

Washington is beginning to recover his reputation; he deserves it. He was the steady hand on the tiller when we set sail as a nation. Steadiness, not reckless innovation, was the thing America needed at the time. It's to his credit that we forget the serpents of tyranny and mob rule that slithered about the American cradle. To remember, read the history of the French Revolution.

The painter Benjamin West wrote that when he talked to King George III during the Revolutionary War, the monarch asked him what he thought George Washington would do if he prevailed.

Return to his farm, West predicted -- accurately, as it turned out.

"If he does that," King George remarked, "he will be the greatest man in the world."

I've said this before. George Washington's birthday should recover its original place in our national calendar. In the early 19th century, it was one of the two great national holidays -- along with the 4th of July. Memorial Day began with the Civil War, Veteran's Day and Labor Day are 20th century creations. Thanksgiving was a local New England custom and the German immigrants brought us Christmas. No right-thinking Enlightenment republican would have made a national holiday of Easter.

But Washington's day was a great feast in the civic calendar.

Parson Weems and his biography of Washington loom large in the "Lies My Teacher Told Me" industry. Wretched literalists love to remind everyone that George Washington never chopped down a tree, never said "I cannot tell a lie," and never skipped a silver dollar across the Potomac. They claim these things are, or recently were, taught in schools as facts. They chew endlessly on the juiciness of a pious writer inventing a story -- a lie -- to illustrate the badness of lying.

Why did Parson Weems lie? I say he wasn't lying. I say he was inventing mythology.

We easily forget how new representative government was in Washington's day. What the United States became in 1787 was something that had not existed since before Christ, and the Founders harked back to ancient blueprints when they set up the American system.

They knew, for instance, that the ancient mixed government demi-democracies of Greece and Rome all had hero-founder stories to bind them together. Myth mattered; fact was irrelevant. Theseus's deeds in Athens were a pure fiction, and even an astute Athenian who had read Homer certainly knew this.

Centuries later, Plutarch (himself something of a "parson:" he served as one of the two priests at the temple of Apollo at Delphi) looked out on the Roman Empire wracked by the tyranny of Nero and the bloodbath of civil war, and he sat down and wrote the "Parallel Lives." He knew his biographical information was unreliable. He had no intention of deciding what was true or of telling histories: he was setting up characters as lessons (or anti-models), to teach his readers about being citizens, being virtuous -- being human. Emerson called the "Lives" "a bible for heroes."

Parson Weems knew this new country of America also needed myths and glorified founders to bind it together in its diversity. His biographies of the founders are the American equivalent of Shakespeare's English history plays. Like Athens, we were a nation born myth-less. We were absent from the catalogue of ships, so Weems gave us a Mount Vernon Theseus to fill the bill. Like Rome, the United States (which still took a plural pronoun in those days) could not survive without common civic virtues. He gave us Washington as their exemplar.

Washington, the walking collection of biographical details, hardly mattered to that purpose. And I believe Washington would have endorsed that view entirely. Which is why George Washington ought to be put back on his birthday pedestal.

To me, Washington is American history's grand exemplar of the virtue of civic duty. Say "actor-president" and people think Reagan, but Washington played a role so thoroughly, and so perfectly, that people still think he was that regal, noble Roman hero. When you read the accounts of him written by his intimate circle during the Revolution, you see the American man -- vain, hard-driving, hard-cussing, clever in a farmer's ways. And you appreciate what he did to get America launched on an even keel: passing up a life he could have spent happily among his horses, transforming himself into a living virtue as a gift to the new nation.

As the Revolution drew to a close, Washington deliberately reached back to yet another historical myth to ease the delicate transition from military revolution to civilian administration: Cincinnatus, the Roman hero who, during a crisis, reluctantly accepted the dictatorship for six months, defeated Rome's enemies in six weeks, then resigned and went back to his plow.

Now regarded as almost surely mythical, Cincinnatus was a real hero to the Founders. And when Washington resigned from public life in 1783 after the great victory and returned to Mount Vernon rather than mounting the throne of the new nation, he was the marvel of the world, and he was behaving quite deliberately on the classical model. His peers recognized it. Washington became head of an association of Revolutionary War veterans -- the equivalent of today's American Legion or VFW -- called the Society of the Cincinnati.

As America's first president, Washington literally had to invent the job of being an elected leader of a nation, because there was no model for it in modern times. He had to parse out decisions about what title people should use when addressing the president, how a president should interact with Congress, how he should receive dinner invitations.

In some small details of protocol, Washington erred on the side of royalty. No harm done; Adams and Jefferson tilted the balance carefully back. The danger of having no dignity at the top, no noblesse oblige, was the greater danger, and Washington made sure we had enough noblesse to realize the oblige.

Do modern Americans still need national myths like Washington's cherry tree? Well, I doubt the old myths are literally recoverable, but we continually spin new ones, so we must crave them yet. To insist we the people be content with the dry facts of our history is as impractical as it is for secular people to expect the rest of Americans to simply get over this religion thing.

Myths are made on all sides, in all quarters. Look at the hagiography of some of the Sept. 11 victims. Michael Moore's stock-in-trade is the manufactured myth, fed to a yearning-to-believe audience. For a while, supporters of president Bush had a habit of comparing him to Shakespeare's Prince Hal/Henry V.

Not all myths are productive. But myths like those woven in 1800 by Parson Weems tell us who we are and what we stand for, and that tempers a great power by giving it a virtuous purpose. "Morality" has become a dirty word to a lot of people, because they concede morals to the prudes. So I'll go back to the word the Founders used: virtues. When Europeans carp about our patriotic religion and fixation with morality, I say, "you really don't want to have to deal with what we'd be without it." A great power without virtues is more deadly to itself and its neighbors than a great power that believes it has to live up to some high standard ordained by God, the gods, human experience or history.

That's why we need to bring back George Washington.

Some further ruminations on our George here.

And finally, though I would separate Washington's Birthday from Lincoln's, here's one of the many stories Lincoln famously told to entertain his fellow lawyers on the long nights riding the circuit on the Illinois frontier:

One of the leaders of the American Revolution -- I forget now who it was, Ethan Allen, perhaps -- visited England after the war. His host entertained him comfortably, but was the sort of fellow who constantly disparaged America and Americans generally (no, it didn't start with Bush), and never could get over the fact we had beaten them in the war. To amuse himself and to twit his American guest, the host hung a print of George Washington on the wall of his outhouse. It had been there for a few days, and the host knew the American must have seen it, but he had said nothing. Finally overcome by curiosity, the host asked his guest what he thought of the picture of Washington.

"It is most appropriately hung," the American replied. "Nothing ever made the British shit like the sight of George Washington."