The Art of Parenting a Democratic Republic
The January 6 congressional hearings started last week, exposing the details of a coup attempt to subvert the peaceful transfer of presidential power for the first time in US history. The Founding Father’s would have been appalled. And, George Washington, the only president who could ever credibly claim that a majority of the people would have been happy to have him rule for life, would have been the most disgusted of all.
Like any good parent, Washington fostered and protected the republic in its youth until the systems and habits of a nation could take root. He worked to establish a strong central government and to unify the states beneath it. This was an unprecedented task in the late 18th century, and it was not an easy one. It’s a bit of a contradiction to unite states that fought a war for sovereignty.
Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation (2000) argues that the divides we see throughout American history were there from the beginning and are unlikely ever to heal. Though the Founding Fathers were all white, privileged, males, they did not agree about the fundamental basis of the nation, and “in a very real sense we are, politically, if not genetically, still living their legacy.”
Individual liberty is the core belief of small “r” “republicanism,” articulated best by Thomas Jefferson. It is libertarian and at its most extreme anarchic. By contrast, the “Federal” viewpoint, embodied in Alexander Hamilton, promoted surrendering individual interests to the larger collective. At its worst, it has despotic implications. To a degree, these differences became institutionalized in the party system.
Although Washington was a Federalist, his public standing was so high that he was essentially a republican king. Described as “the Father of the Country” since 1776, Washington was regal in stature with a martial dignity and charisma that commanded attention. His image was everywhere—on paintings, prints, coins, silverware, plates, and household tchotchkes. The capitol city was named for him. He rode a white stallion with a leopard cloth and a gold-trimmed saddle. He accepted laurel crowns at celebrations that resembled coronations. With the force of his reputation and personality, Washington held the new nation together. Ellis writes:
“He was living the great paradox of the early American republic: What was politically essential for the survival of the infant nation was ideologically at odds with what it claimed to stand for. He fulfilled his obligations as a ‘singular character’ so capably that he seemed to defy the republican tradition itself. He had come to embody national authority so successfully that every attack on the government’s policies seemed to be an attack on him.”
Washington was offered concrete opportunities to become a real king, but at every turn he declined. He refused to take part when disgruntled army officers tried to recruit him to the insurrectionary Newburgh Conspiracy, and the plot fizzled. He resigned as commander of the Continental Army in 1783 without drama.
In September 1789, Washington published his “farewell address” in the newspapers to inform the people he served that he intended to retire when his second term ended. Rejecting his own cult of personality, he signaled for the last time that he had no intention of ruling until the end of his life or appointing a successor. Like a good parent, he stepped aside to let the nation continue to grow up, trusting (and hoping) that the principles he had instilled would lead it down the right course.
From the beginning, the peaceful transfer of power in this country has been dependent on the good behavior of the president rather than codifed in law. It probably seemed unnecessary to do so with Washington in office. But, as we have seen, that can be dangerous. We must be vigilant to protect our democracy, and we must not take it for granted.
Watch the January 6 hearings.
Image credit: The Washington Family by Edward Savage in the Andrew W. Mellon Collection at the National Gallery of Art
Heidi Hackford explores how past and present intersect.