1 George Washington's Birthday: an American Holiday.
Remembering the birthday of George Washington--February 22, 1732--should be a particularly cherished national obligation. Americans celebrated Washington's Birthday long before Congress in 1879 declared it a holiday for federal workers in the District of Columbia, and, in 1885, a holiday for federal employees everywhere. It was celebrated at Valley Forge in 1778, and, after the Founding, it was annually, if unofficially, marked throughout the new republic. Writing in American History, historian Richard Brookhiser notes, "No need to say whose birthday, or who the big man was; February 22, as every American knew, was the birthday of President George Washington, the biggest man in the infant United States." (1)
In 1832, as the centennial of Washington's birth approached, Congress debated how best to honor the Founding Father who, according to fellow Virginian Henry Lee, was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." Kentucky Senator Henry Clay suggested that the federal government remove Washington's body from his home at Mount Vernon and that a tomb be erected within the US Capitol--an idea originally proposed by John Marshall (future Supreme Court Justice) and unanimously approved by Congress in 1799, but delayed indefinitely due to lack of funding. However, by 1832, regional and political differences made the proposal much more divisive, with Virginia Senator John Tyler declaring that a removal of Washington's body from his state would impede on Virginia's rights. He urged Congress to refrain from exhibiting Washington "in the Capitol as a spectacle to a gaping crowd." (2) Southern congressmen agreed with the Virginians (and Senator John Forsythe of Georgia even read aloud Washington's will, which designated Mount Vernon as his burial place), while those from northern states tended to favor the transfer. Eventually, the bill passed (109-76 in the House and 29-15 in the Senate), but Washington's heirs declined the federal application, and Washington remains entombed "on the banks of the Potomac, & under the shadow of [his] own Vine & [his] own Fig tree" at Mount Vernon. (3)
For all the debate over Washington's final burial place, the centennial of Washington's birthday was celebrated with parades, orations, and festivals across the country, and Congress itself adjourned for the day out of respect for his memory.
Thirty years later, in 1862, the Union threatened by Civil War, Congress chose to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Washington's birthday by reading the first president's Farewell Address to the nation. (4) A group of citizens from Philadelphia had petitioned Congress to this effect, and Tennessee Senator Andrew Johnson made the motion in the Senate. "In view of the perilous condition of the country," he said, "I think the time has arrived when we should recur back to the days, the times, and the doings of Washington and the patriots of the Revolution, who founded the government under which we live." (5) on February 22, Congress met in a joint session and, joined by members of the Supreme Court, military officers, and members of President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet (Lincoln himself, whose son Willie had died two days earlier, did not attend), listened as Secretary of the Senate John W. Forney read Washington's Farewell Address.
In 1888, the Senate reintroduced this ceremony and, within a few years, made its observance an annual tradition. Every year since 1896, the body has selected one of its members to read the Farewell Address aloud, in legislative session, in honor of Washington's Birthday. (Unfortunately, this tradition has lost much of the attention it once held among members of the Senate. In 2012, only two senators--Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, who was reading the address, and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who was presiding over the Senate--were in the chamber at the time of the reading. (6))
on February 22, 1927, President Calvin Coolidge addressed a joint session of Congress to officially commence the planning of festivities for the 1932 bicentennial of Washington's birthday, declaring that Washington "was the directing spirit without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic." (7) Five years later, President Herbert Hoover addressed the same body as towns across the nation held public festivals, parades, and speeches to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of the nation's first president.
In 1968, the tradition of honoring Washington on his actual birthday changed. That year, members of Congress approved, and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act to "provide uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Mondays." (8) By creating more three-day weekends, Congress hoped to "bring substantial benefits to both the spiritual and economic life of the Nation," (9) while preventing midweek holiday interruptions. When signing the act, Johnson noted, "This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together." (10)
Decades later, the practical benefits of the holiday have come to be realized, as many Americans use the holiday for vacation or bargain-hunting. Washington's Birthday is now celebrated on the third Monday in February--and therefore never on February 22--as a grateful nation enjoys the "spiritual and economic" benefits of Washington's Birthday Mattress Day Sales.
To add to the confusion, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act also included a provision, championed by Illinois Senator Robert McClory, to change the name of Washington's Birthday to Presidents' Day, given the day's proximity to Abraham Lincoln's birthday on February 12. Congress did not approve McClory's proposal, but many states did, with the result that, by the mid-1980s, the day was known to most Americans as Presidents' Day. Although the federal holiday remains Washington's Birthday, the change in the popular conception of the day has caused confusion regarding whether we are honoring only Washington and his fellow February giant, Lincoln, or all the presidents, regardless of merit.
The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions
How do we American citizens develop attachment to and affection for the United States? What role do our founding documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and principles play in making patriots? How important is national memory of important events and great leaders? These questions were much on the mind of an aspiring young politician named Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) who, on January 28, 1838 gave this speech to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois on "The
Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions," in which he articulated the need for a "political religion " to secure "the attachment of the People" to the Republic.
What does Lincoln mean by political religion, and why is it necessary? Why does he suppose a danger to the perpetuation of our political institutions? Toward the end of his speech, Lincoln speaks about the founding generation, "a forest of giant oaks" that " were pillars of the temple of liberty," whose now crumbling places must be replaced "with other pillars hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason." What precisely does he have in mind? At the end of the speech, after speaking of the importance of cold, calculating reason, Lincoln invokes George Washington. Why does he do so? What place does Lincoln give Washington in America's new political religion? Has Lincoln in this speech unintentionally provided a reason for making Washington's birthday a national holiday?
As a subject for the remarks of the evening, the perpetuation of our political institutions, is selected.
In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by usurpation--to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
How, then, shall we perform it? At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.
I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice. This disposition is awfully fearful in any community; and that it now exists in ours, though grating to our feelings to admit, it would be a violation of truth, and an insult to our intelligence, to deny. Accounts of outrages committed by mobs, form the everyday news of the times. They have pervaded the country, from New England to Louisiana;--they are neither peculiar to the eternal snows of the former, nor the burning suns of the latter;--they are not the creature of climate--neither are they confined to the slaveholding, or the non-slaveholding States. Alike, they spring up among the pleasure hunting masters of Southern slaves, and the order loving citizens of the land of steady habits. Whatever, then, their cause may be, it is common to the whole country. ...
(Here, in three paragraphs, Lincoln recounts recent episodes of lawlessness and mob rule in Mississippi and in St. Louis.)
But you are, perhaps, ready to ask, "What has this to do with the perpetuation of our political institutions?" I answer, it has much to do with it. Its direct consequences are, comparatively speaking, but a small evil; and much of its danger consists, in the proneness of our minds, to regard its direct, as its only consequences. ... Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed--I mean the attachment of the People. Whenever this effect shall be produced among us; whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last. By such things, the feelings of the best citizens will become more or less alienated from it; and thus it will be left without friends, or with too few, and those few too weak, to make their friendship effectual. At such a time and under such circumstances, men of sufficient talent and ambition will not be wanting to seize the opportunity, strike the blow, and overturn that fair fabric, which for the last half century, has been the fondest hope, of the lovers of freedom, throughout the world.
I know the American People are much attached to their Government;--I know they would suffer much for its sake;--I know they would endure evils long and patiently, before they would ever think of exchanging it for another. Yet, notwithstanding all this, if the laws be continually despised and disregarded, if their rights to be secure in their persons and property, are held by no better tenure than the caprice of a mob, the alienation of their affections from the Government is the natural consequence; and to that, sooner or later, it must come.
Here then, is one point at which danger may be expected.
The question recurs "how shall we fortify against it?" The answer is simple. Let every American, every lover of liberty, every well wisher to his posterity, swear by the blood of the Revolution, never to violate in the least particular, the laws of the country; and never to tolerate their violation by others. As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;--let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character of his own, and his children's liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap--let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;--let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;--let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.
While ever a state of feeling, such as this, shall universally, or even, very generally prevail throughout the nation, vain will be every effort, and fruitless every attempt, to subvert our national freedom. ...
(Here, Lincoln speaks about bad laws and the need both to repeal them but to obey them while they remain in force.)
But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?
We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:--their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.
Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.
Here then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.
Another reason which once was; but which, to the same extent, is now no more, has done much in maintaining our institutions thus far. I mean the powerful influence which the interesting scenes of the revolution had upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment. By this influence, the jealousy, envy, and avarice, incident to our nature, and so common to a state of peace, prosperity, and conscious strength, were, for the time, in a great measure smothered and rendered inactive; while the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause--that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.
But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.
I do not mean to say, that the scenes of the revolution are now or ever will be entirely forgotten; but that like every thing else, they must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the bible shall be read;--but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest. At the close of that struggle, nearly every adult male had been a participator in some of its scenes. The consequence was, that of those scenes, in the form of a husband, a father, a son or a brother, a living history was to be found in every family--a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the very scenes related--a history, too, that could be read and understood alike by all, the wise and the ignorant, the learned and the unlearned. But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but, what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone. They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few more gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.
They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence. Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws; and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.
Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
The Character of Washington
On February 22, 1832, the centennial birthday of George Washington, a number of gentlemen, members of Congress and others, from different parts of the Union, celebrated the occasion by a public dinner in the city of Washington. After dinner, Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts (1782-1852) gave this (excerpted) address, which remains one of the greatest speeches commemorating our founding president. Why, according to Webster, should Washington's birthday be celebrated? For what virtues of character does Webster praise him? How does he characterize Washington's political principles, both of foreign and domestic policy? How relevant does Webster regard Washington's example and his teachings for Webster's own time and for America's future? Is Webster's view of the importance of George Washington and of celebrating his life still fitting today? Why or why not?
I rise, Gentlemen, to propose to you the name of that great man, in commemoration of whose birth, and in honor of whose character and services, we are here assembled.
I am sure that I express a sentiment common to every one present, when I say that there is something more than ordinarily solemn and affecting in this occasion.
We are met to testify our regard for him whose name is intimately blended with whatever belongs most essentially to the prosperity, the liberty, the free institutions, and the renown of our country. That name was of power to rally a nation, in the hour of thick-thronging public disasters and calamities; that name shone, amid the storm of war, a beacon light, to cheer and guide the country's friends; it flamed, too, like a meteor, to repel her foes. That name, in the days of peace, was a loadstone, attracting to itself a whole people's confidence, a whole people's love, and the whole world's respect. That name, descending with all time, spreading over the whole earth, and uttered in all the languages belonging to the tribes and races of men, will for ever be pronounced with affectionate gratitude by every one in whose breast there shall arise an aspiration for human rights and human liberty.
We perform this grateful duty, Gentlemen, at the expiration of a hundred years from his birth, near the place, so cherished and beloved by him, where his dust now reposes, and in the capital which bears his own immortal name.
All experience evinces that human sentiments are strongly influenced by associations. The recurrence of anniversaries, or of longer periods of time, naturally freshens the recollection, and deepens the impression, of events with which they are historically connected. Renowned places, also, have a power to awaken feeling, which all acknowledge. No American can pass by the fields of Bunker Hill, Monmouth, and Camden, as if they were ordinary spots on the earth's surface. Whoever visits them feels the sentiment of love of country kindling anew, as if the spirit that belonged to the transactions which have rendered these places distinguished still hovered round, with power to move and excite all who in future time may approach them.
But neither of these sources of emotion equals the power with which great moral examples affect the mind. When sublime virtues cease to be abstractions, when they become embodied in human character, and exemplified in human conduct, we should be false to our own nature, if we did not indulge in the spontaneous effusions of our gratitude and our admiration. A true lover of the virtue of patriotism delights to contemplate its purest models; and that love of country may be well suspected which affects to soar so high into the regions of sentiment as to be lost and absorbed in the abstract feeling, and becomes too elevated or too refined to glow with fervor in the commendation or the love of individual benefactors. All this is unnatural. ... We may be assured, Gentlemen, that he who really loves the thing itself, loves its finest exhibitions. A true friend of his country loves her friends and benefactors, and thinks it no degradation to commend and commemorate them. The voluntary outpouring of the public feeling, made to-day, from the North to the South, and from the East to the West, proves this sentiment to be both just and natural. In the cities and in the villages, in the public temples and in the family circles, among all ages and sexes, gladdened voices to-day bespeak grateful hearts and a freshened recollection of the virtues of the Father of his Country. And it will be so, in all time to come, so long as public virtue is itself an object of regard. The ingenuous youth of America will hold up to themselves the bright model of Washington's example, and study to be what they behold; they will contemplate his character till all its virtues spread out and display themselves to their delighted vision. ...
Gentlemen, we are at a point of a century from the birth of Washington; and what a century it has been! During its course, the human mind has seemed to proceed with a sort of geometric velocity, accomplishing for human intelligence and human freedom more than had been done in fives or tens of centuries preceding. Washington stands at the commencement of a new era, as well as at the head of the New World. A century from the birth of Washington has changed the world. The country of Washington has been the theatre on which a great part of that change has been wrought, and Washington himself a principal agent by which it has been accomplished. His age and his country are equally full of wonders; and of both he is the chief.
If the poetical prediction, uttered a few years before his birth, be true; if indeed it be designed by Providence that the grandest exhibition of human character and human affairs shall be made on this theatre of the Western world; if it be true that,
"The four first acts already past, A fifth shall close the drama with the day, Time's noblest offspring is the last";-- (11)
how could this imposing, swelling, final scene be appropriately opened, how could its intense interest be adequately sustained, but by the introduction of just such a character as our Washington?
Washington had attained his manhood when that spark of liberty was struck out in his own country, which has since kindled into a flame, and shot its beams over the earth. In the flow of a century from his birth, the world has changed in science, in arts, in the extent of commerce, in the improvement of navigation, and in all that relates to the civilization of man. But it is the spirit of human freedom, the new elevation of individual man, in his moral, social, and political character, leading the whole long train of other improvements, which has most remarkably distinguished the era. Society, in this century, has not made its progress, like Chinese skill, by a greater acuteness of ingenuity in trifles; it has not merely lashed itself to an increased speed round the old circles of thought and action; but it has assumed a new character; it has raised itself from beneath governments to a participation in governments; it has mixed moral and political objects with the daily pursuits of individual men; and, with a freedom and strength before altogether unknown, it has applied to these objects the whole power of the human understanding. It has been the era, in short, when the social principle has triumphed over the feudal principle; when society has maintained its rights against military power, and established, on foundations never hereafter to be shaken, its competency to govern itself.
It was the extraordinary fortune of Washington, that, having been intrusted, in revolutionary times, with the supreme military command, and having fulfilled that trust with equal renown for wisdom and for valor, he should be placed at the head of the first government in which an attempt was to be made on a large scale to rear the fabric of social order on the basis of a written constitution and of a pure representative principle. A government was to be established, without a throne, without an aristocracy, without castes, orders, or privileges; and this government, instead of being a democracy, existing and acting within the walls of a single city, was to be extended over a vast country, of different climates, interests, and habits, and of various communions of our common Christian faith. The experiment certainly was entirely new. A popular government of this extent, it was evident, could be framed only by carrying into full effect the principle of representation or of delegated power; and the world was to see whether society could, by the strength of this principle, maintain its own peace and good government, carry forward its own great interests, and conduct itself to political renown and glory. By the benignity of Providence, this experiment, so full of interest to us and to our posterity for ever, so full of interest, indeed, to the world in its present generation and in all its generations to come, was suffered to commence under the guidance of Washington. Destined for this high career, he was fitted for it by wisdom, by virtue, by patriotism, by discretion, by whatever can inspire confidence in man toward man. In entering on the untried scenes, early disappointment and the premature extinction of all hope of success would have been certain, had it not been that there did exist throughout the country, in a most extraordinary degree, an unwavering trust in him who stood at the helm.
I remarked, Gentlemen, that the whole world was and is interested in the result of this experiment. And is it not so? Do we deceive ourselves, or is it true that at this moment the career which this government is running is among the most attractive objects to the civilized world? Do we deceive ourselves, or is it true that at this moment that love of liberty and that understanding of its true principles which are flying over the whole earth, as on the wings of all the winds, are really and truly of American origin? ...
Gentlemen, the spirit of human liberty and of free government, nurtured and grown into strength and beauty in America, has stretched its course into the midst of the nations. Like an emanation from Heaven, it has gone forth, and it will not return void. It must change, it is fast changing, the face of the earth. our great, our high duty is to show, in our own example, that this spirit is a spirit of health as well as a spirit of power; that its benignity is as great as its strength; that its efficiency to secure individual rights, social relations, and moral order, is equal to the irresistible force with which it prostrates principalities and powers. The world, at this moment, is regarding us with a willing, but something of a fearful admiration. Its deep and awful anxiety is to learn whether free states may be stable, as well as free; whether popular power may be trusted, as well as feared; in short, whether wise, regular, and virtuous self-government is a vision for the contemplation of theorists, or a truth established, illustrated, and brought into practice in the country of Washington.
Gentlemen, for the earth which we inhabit, and the whole circle of the sun, for all the unborn races of mankind, we seem to hold in our hands, for their weal or woe, the fate of this experiment. If we fail, who shall venture the repetition? If our example shall prove to be one, not of encouragement, but of terror, not fit to be imitated, but fit only to be shunned, where else shall the world look for free models? If this great Western Sun be struck out of the firmament, at what other fountain shall the lamp of liberty hereafter be lighted? What other orb shall emit a ray to glimmer, even, on the darkness of the world?
There is no danger of our overrating or overstating the important part which we are now acting in human affairs. It should not flatter our personal self-respect, but it should reanimate our patriotic virtues, and inspire us with a deeper and more solemn sense, both of our privileges and of our duties. We cannot wish better for our country, nor for the world, than that the same spirit which influenced Washington may influence all who succeed him; and that the same blessing from above, which attended his efforts, may also attend theirs.
The principles of Washington's administration are not left doubtful. They are to be found in the Constitution itself, in the great measures recommended and approved by him, in his speeches to Congress, and in that most interesting paper, his Farewell Address to the People of the United States. The success of the government under his administration is the highest proof of the soundness of these principles. And, after an experience of thirty-five years, what is there which an enemy could condemn? What is there which either his friends, or the friends of the country, could wish to have been otherwise? I speak, of course, of great measures and leading principles.
In the first place, all his measures were right in their intent. He stated the whole basis of his own great character, when he told the country, in the homely phrase of the proverb, that honesty is the best policy. one of the most striking things ever said of him is, that "he changed mankind's ideas of political greatness." (12) To commanding talents, and to success, the common elements of such greatness, he added a disregard of self, a spotlessness of motive, a steady submission to every public and private duty, which threw far into the shade the whole crowd of vulgar great. The object of his regard was the whole country. No part of it was enough to fill his enlarged patriotism. His love of glory, so far as that may be supposed to have influenced him at all, spurned every thing short of general approbation. It would have been nothing to him, that his partisans or his favorites outnumbered, or outvoted, or outmanaged, or outclamored, those of other leaders. He had no favorites; he rejected all partisanship; and, acting honestly for the universal good, he deserved, what he has so richly enjoyed, the universal love.
His principle it was to act right, and to trust the people for support; his principle it was not to follow the lead of sinister and selfish ends, nor to rely on the little arts of party delusion to obtain public sanction for such a course. Born for his country and for the world, he did not give up to party what was meant for mankind. The consequence is, that his fame is as durable as his principles, as lasting as truth and virtue themselves. While the hundreds whom party excitement, and temporary circumstances, and casual combinations, have raised into transient notoriety, sink again, like thin bubbles, bursting and dissolving into the great ocean, Washington's fame is like the rock which bounds that ocean, and at whose feet its billows are destined to break harmlessly for ever.
The maxims upon which Washington conducted our foreign relations were few and simple. The first was an entire and indisputable impartiality towards foreign states. He adhered to this rule of public conduct, against very strong inducements to depart from it, and when the popularity of the moment seemed to favor such a departure. In the next place, he maintained true dignity and unsullied honor in all communications with foreign states. It was among the high duties devolved upon him, to introduce our new government into the circle of civilized states and powerful nations. Not arrogant or assuming, with no unbecoming or supercilious bearing, he yet exacted for it from all others entire and punctilious respect. He demanded, and he obtained at once, a standing of perfect equality for his country in the society of nations; nor was there a prince or potentate of his day, whose personal character carried with it, into the intercourse of other states, a greater degree of respect and veneration.
He regarded other nations only as they stood in political relations to us. With their internal affairs, their political parties and dissensions, he scrupulously abstained from all interference; and, on the other hand, he repelled with spirit all such interference by others with us or our concerns. His sternest rebuke, the most indignant measure of his whole administration, was aimed against such an attempted interference. He felt it as an attempt to wound the national honor, and resented it accordingly.
The reiterated admonitions in his Farewell Address show his deep fears that foreign influence would insinuate itself into our counsels through the channels of domestic dissension, and obtain a sympathy with our own temporary parties. Against all such dangers, he most earnestly entreats the country to guard itself. He appeals to its patriotism, to its self-respect, to its own honor, to every consideration connected with its welfare and happiness, to resist, at the very beginning, all tendencies towards such connection of foreign interests with our own affairs. With a tone of earnestness nowhere else found, even in his last affectionate farewell advice to his countrymen, he says, "Against the insidious wiles of foreign influence, (I conjure you to believe me, fellow-citizens,) the jealousy of a free people ought to be constantly awake; since history and experience prove, that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government."
Lastly, on the subject of foreign relations, Washington never forgot that we had interests peculiar to ourselves. The primary political concerns of Europe, he saw, did not affect us. We had nothing to do with her balance of power, her family compacts, or her successions to thrones. We were placed in a condition favorable to neutrality during European wars, and to the enjoyment of all the great advantages of that relation. "Why, then," he asks us, "why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?"
Indeed, Gentlemen, Washington's Farewell Address is full of truths important at all times, and particularly deserving consideration at the present. With a sagacity which brought the future before him, and made it like the present, he saw and pointed out the dangers that even at this moment most imminently threaten us. I hardly know how a greater service of that kind could now be done to the community, than by a renewed and wide diffusion of that admirable paper, and an earnest invitation to every man in the country to reperuse and consider it. Its political maxims are invaluable; its exhortations to love of country and to brotherly affection among citizens, touching; and the solemnity with which it urges the observance of moral duties, and impresses the power of religious obligation, gives to it the highest character of truly disinterested, sincere, parental advice.
The domestic policy of Washington found its pole-star in the avowed objects of the Constitution itself. He sought so to administer that Constitution, as to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty. These were objects interesting, in the highest degree, to the whole country, and his policy embraced the whole country.
Among his earliest and most important duties was the organization of the government itself, the choice of his confidential advisers, and the various appointments to office. This duty, so important and delicate, when a whole government was to be organized, and all its offices for the first time filled, was yet not difficult to him; for he had no sinister ends to accomplish, no clamorous partisans to gratify, no pledges to redeem, no object to be regarded but simply the public good. It was a plain, straightforward matter, a mere honest choice of men for the public service.
His own singleness of purpose, his disinterested patriotism, were evinced by the selection of his first Cabinet, and by the manner in which he filled the seats of justice, and other places of high trust. He sought for men fit for offices; not for offices which might suit men. Above personal considerations, above local considerations, above party considerations, he felt that he could only discharge the sacred trust which the country had placed in his hands, by a diligent inquiry after real merit, and a conscientious preference of virtue and talent. The whole country was the field of his selection. He explored that whole field, looking only for whatever it contained most worthy and distinguished. He was, indeed, most successful, and he deserved success for the purity of his motives, the liberality of his sentiments, and his enlarged and manly policy.
Washington's administration established the national credit, made provision for the public debt, and for that patriotic army whose interests and welfare were always so dear to him; and, by laws wisely framed, and of admirable effect, raised the commerce and navigation of the country, almost at once, from depression and ruin to a state of prosperity. Nor were his eyes open to these interests alone. He viewed with equal concern its agriculture and manufactures, and, so far as they came within the regular exercise of the powers of this government, they experienced regard and favor.
It should not be omitted, even in this slight reference to the general measures and general principles of the first President, that he saw and felt the full value and importance of the judicial department of the government. An upright and able administration of the laws he held to be alike indispensable to private happiness and public liberty. The temple of justice, in his opinion, was a sacred place, and he would profane and pollute it who should call any to minister in it, not spotless in character, not incorruptible in integrity, not competent by talent and learning, not a fit object of unhesitating trust.
Among other admonitions, Washington has left us, in his last communication to his country, an exhortation against the excesses of party spirit. A fire not to be quenched, he yet conjures us not to fan and feed the flame. Undoubtedly, Gentlemen, it is the greatest danger of our system and of our time. Undoubtedly, if that system should be overthrown, it will be the work of excessive party spirit, acting on the government, which is dangerous enough, or acting in the government, which is a thousand times more dangerous; for government then becomes nothing but organized party, and, in the strange vicissitudes of human affairs, it may come at last, perhaps, to exhibit the singular paradox of government itself being in opposition to its own powers, at war with the very elements of its own existence. Such cases are hopeless. As men may be protected against murder, but cannot be guarded against suicide, so government may be shielded from the assaults of external foes, but nothing can save it when it chooses to lay violent hands on itself.
Finally, Gentlemen, there was in the breast of Washington one sentiment so deeply felt, so constantly uppermost, that no proper occasion escaped without its utterance. From the letter which he signed in behalf of the Convention when the Constitution was sent out to the people, to the moment when he put his hand to that last paper in which he addressed his countrymen, the Union,--the Union was the great object of his thoughts. In that first letter he tells them that, to him and his brethren of the Convention, union appears to be the greatest interest of every true American; and in that last paper he conjures them to regard that unity of government which constitutes them one people as the very palladium of their prosperity and safety, and the security of liberty itself. He regarded the union of these States less as one of our blessings, than as the great treasure-house which contained them all. Here, in his judgment, was the great magazine of all our means of prosperity; here, as he thought, and as every true American still thinks, are deposited all our animating prospects, all our solid hopes for future greatness. He has taught us to maintain this union, not by seeking to enlarge the powers of the government, on the one hand, nor by surrendering them, on the other; but by an administration of them at once firm and moderate, pursuing objects truly national, and carried on in a spirit of justice and equity.
The extreme solicitude for the preservation of the Union, at all times manifested by him, shows not only the opinion he entertained of its importance, but his clear perception of those causes which were likely to spring up to endanger it, and which, if once they should overthrow the present system, would leave little hope of any future beneficial reunion. Of all the presumptions indulged by presumptuous man, that is one of the rashest which looks for repeated and favorable opportunities for the deliberate establishment of a united government over distinct and widely extended communities. Such a thing has happened once in human affairs, and but once; the event stands out as a prominent exception to all ordinary history; and unless we suppose ourselves running into an age of miracles, we may not expect its repetition. ...
Other misfortunes may be borne, or their effects overcome. If disastrous war should sweep our commerce from the ocean, another generation may renew it; if it exhaust our treasury, future industry may replenish it; if it desolate and lay waste our fields, still, under a new cultivation, they will grow green again, and ripen to future harvests. It were but a trifle even if the walls of yonder Capitol were to crumble, if its lofty pillars should fall, and its gorgeous decorations be all covered by the dust of the valley. All these might be rebuilt. But who shall reconstruct the fabric of demolished government? Who shall rear again the well-proportioned columns of constitutional liberty? Who shall frame together the skilful architecture which unites national sovereignty with State rights, individual security, and public prosperity? No, if these columns fall, they will be raised not again. Like the Coliseum and the Parthenon, they will be destined to a mournful, a melancholy immortality. Bitterer tears, however, will flow over them, than were ever shed over the monuments of Roman or Grecian art; for they will be the remnants of a more glorious edifice than Greece or Rome ever saw, the edifice of constitutional American liberty.
But let us hope for better things. Let us trust in that gracious Being who has hitherto held our country as in the hollow of his hand. Let us trust to the virtue and the intelligence of the people, and to the efficacy of religious obligation. Let us trust to the influence of Washington's example. Let us hope that that fear of Heaven which expels all other fear, and that regard to duty which transcends all other regard, may influence public men and private citizens, and lead our country still onward in her happy career. Full of these gratifying anticipations and hopes, let us look forward to the end of that century which is now commenced. A hundred years hence, other disciples of Washington will celebrate his birth, with no less of sincere admiration than we now commemorate it. When they shall meet, as we now meet, to do themselves and him that honor, so surely as they shall see the blue summits of his native mountains rise in the horizon, so surely as they shall behold the river on whose banks he lived, and on whose banks he rests, still flowing on toward the sea, so surely may they see, as we now see, the flag of the Union floating on the top of the Capitol; and then, as now, may the sun in his course visit no land more free, more happy, more lovely, than this our own country!
Gentlemen, I propose--"THE MEMORY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON."
The Vow of Washington
John Greenleaf Whittier
In previous generations, Americans have celebrated not only Washington's birthday but also the anniversary of his inauguration as America's first president. This poem, composed by John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), was read on April 30, 1889, at the centennial celebration of Washington's first taking the oath of presidential office in New York City. How does Whittier describe the scene and national mood? What was the vow of Washington, and why did "freedom's great experiment" succeed? How does the poet deal with the Civil War in relation to Washington's vow? Why is Washington's name "our Union-bond" and why should we "take on our lips the old Centennial vow"?
The sword was sheathed: in April's sun Lay green the fields by Freedom won; And severed sections, weary of debates, Joined hands at last and were United States. O City sitting by the Sea! How proud the day that dawned on thee, When the new era, long desired, began, And, in its need, the hour had found the man! One thought the cannon salvos spoke, The resonant bell-tower's vibrant stroke, The voiceful streets, the plaudit-echoing halls, And prayer and hymn borne heavenward from St. Paul's! How felt the land in every part The strong throb of a nation's heart, As its great leader gave, with reverent awe, His pledge to Union, Liberty, and Law! That pledge the heavens above him heard, That vow the sleep of centuries stirred; In world-wide wonder listening peoples bent Their gaze on Freedom's great experiment. Could it succeed? Of honor sold And hopes deceived all history told. Above the wrecks that strewed the mournful past, Was the long dream of ages true at last? Thank God! the people's choice was just, The one man equal to his trust, Wise beyond lore, and without weakness good, Calm in the strength of flawless rectitude! His rule of justice, order, peace, Made possible the world's release; Taught prince and serf that power is but a trust, And rule, alone, which serves the ruled, is just; That Freedom generous is, but strong In hate of fraud and selfish wrong, Pretence that turns her holy truths to lies, And lawless license masking in her guise. Land of his love! with one glad voice Let thy great sisterhood rejoice; A century's suns o'er thee have risen and set, And, God be praised, we are one nation yet. And still we trust the years to be Shall prove his hope was destiny, Leaving our flag, with all its added stars, Unrent by faction and unstained by wars. Lo! where with patient toil he nursed And trained the new-set plant at first, The widening branches of a stately tree Stretch from the sunrise to the sunset sea. And in its broad and sheltering shade, Sitting with none to make afraid, Were we now silent, through each mighty limb, The winds of heaven would sing the praise of him. Our first and best!--his ashes lie Beneath his own Virginian sky. Forgive, forget, O true and just and brave, The storm that swept above thy sacred grave. For, ever in the awful strife And dark hours of the nation's life, Through the fierce tumult pierced his warning word, Their father's voice his erring children heard. The change for which he prayed and sought In that sharp agony was wrought; No partial interest draws its alien line 'Twixt North and South, the cypress and the pine! One people now, all doubt beyond, His name shall be our Union-bond; We lift our hands to Heaven, and here and now. Take on our lips the old Centennial vow. For rule and trust must needs be ours; Chooser and chosen both are powers Equal in service as in rights; the claim Of Duty rests on each and all the same. Then let the sovereign millions, where Our banner floats in sun and air, From the warm palm-lands to Alaska's cold, Repeat with us the pledge a century old!
To His Excellency General Washington
This difficult poem, written in neoclassical style, is included in this collection partly because of the remarkable story of its author, partly to show how early the celebration of Washington began, and how widely he was admired. Phillis Wheatley (1753?-84) was born in Africa and brought in 1761 on a slave ship to Boston, where she was purchased by a Mr. Wheatley. But her extraordinary intelligence and character soon led the Wheatleys to treat her more as a family intimate than as a slave. Displaying a thirst for learning, she acquired, without formal schooling, a first-rate education and great familiarity with the best authors, and from an early age she wrote poetry; a volume of her verse was published in London when she was but 19 years old. This poem of martial hope and praise, written at the start of the American Revolution when the result was utterly in doubt, Wheatley sent to Washington on October 26, 1775. Washington replied in a personal letter on February 28, 1776. (13) Readers of the poem should know that "Columbia" was both a historical and poetic name used for America, and also the name of America's female personification (later "Lady Liberty").
How does Wheatley view the emerging Revolutionary War and how does she see Columbia's armies? Who is the goddess of stanza two, and what is her role? How, in the third stanza, does Wheatley present the relation between Washington and the army? What, in the fourth stanza, is the place of Columbia among the nations? What, in the last stanza, does the poet wish for Washington and see as his just deserts? Would such a result be compatible with the spirit of liberty to which she is devoted?
Celestial choir! enthron'd in realms of light, Columbia's scenes of glorious toils I write. While freedom's cause her anxious breast alarms, She flashes dreadful in refulgent (14) arms. See mother earth her offspring's fate bemoan, And nations gaze at scenes before unknown! See the bright beams of heaven's revolving light Involved in sorrows and the veil of night! The goddess comes, she moves divinely fair, olive and laurel binds Her golden hair: Wherever shines this native of the skies, Unnumber'd charms and recent graces rise. Muse! bow propitious (15) while my pen relates How pour her armies through a thousand gates, As when Eolus (16) heaven's fair face deforms, Enwrapp'd in tempest and a night of storms; Astonish'd ocean feels the wild uproar, The refluent (17) surges beat the sounding shore; Or thick as leaves in Autumn's golden reign, Such, and so many, moves the warrior's train. In bright array they seek the work of war, Where high unfurl'd the ensign waves in air. Shall I to Washington their praise recite? Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight. Thee, first in peace and honors--we demand The grace and glory of thy martial band. Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more, Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore! One century scarce perform'd its destined round, When Gallic powers Columbia's fury found; And so may you, whoever dares disgrace The land of freedom's heaven-defended race! Fix'd are the eyes of nations on the scales, For in their hopes Columbia's arm prevails. Anon Britannia droops the pensive (18) head, While round increase the rising hills of dead. Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia's state! Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late. Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, Thy ev'ry action let the goddess guide. A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.
Ode for Washington's Birthday
Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Unlike Wheatley's poem before it, this poem by prominent physician and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. (1809-94), written for the Boston Mercantile Library Association's celebration of Washington's birthday on February 22, 1856, has us look back and remember the hero Washington and consider what it means to honor the nation's "Father." Writing just a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War (in which his son, the future Supreme Court justice and author Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. would fight), Holmes warns his readers to "doubt the patriot whose suggestions / strive a nation to divide!" These patriotic themes were common among a group of New England writers known as the Fireside Poets (whose members included Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, and James Russell Lowell) who wrote for ordinary citizens and raised 19th century American poetry to the same level of popularity as that coming from England.
Why does Holmes believe that Washington's birthday is "Dearer still as ages flow "? Three times he invites us to "see" images of Washington, from birth to death. What picture of Washington does he create for us? More important than these "seeings," he asks us to "Hear the Father's dying voice." What, according to Holmes, is Washington's final teaching? And what should be the current generation's relation to Washington and his words? As 21st-century Americans bid "Welcome to the day returning," can we still hearken to our Father's counsel and heed his warning against national division?
Welcome to the day returning, Dearer still as ages flow, While the torch of Faith is burning, Long as Freedom's altars glow! See the hero whom it gave us Slumbering on a mother's breast; For the arm he stretched to save us, Be its morn forever blest! Vain is empire's mad temptation! Not for him an earthly crown! He whose sword has freed a nation Strikes the offered scepter down. See the throneless conqueror seated, Ruler by a people's choice; See the patriot's task completed; Hear the Father's dying voice: "By the name that you inherit, By the sufferings you recall, Cherish the fraternal spirit; Love your country first of all! Listen not to idle questions If its bands may be untied; Doubt the patriot whose suggestions Strive a nation to divide." Father! we, whose ears have tingled With the discord notes of shame; We, whose sires their blood have mingled In the battle's thunder-flame,-- Gathering, while this holy morning Lights the land from sea to sea, Hear thy counsel, heed thy warning; Trust us while we honor thee.
Washington and Our Schools and Colleges
Charles W. Eliot
At least until the latter half of the 20th century learning about George Washington was a staple of American public education. His picture adorned the walls of many classrooms, and young people--including the editors of this book--grew up, as it were, under his gaze and in his continual presence. The importance of Washington to the civic mission of our schools and colleges is the subject of this speech, given in 1889 in New York City at the centennial celebration of Washington's assuming the presidency, by Charles W. Eliot (1834-1926), the extraordinary president of Harvard University from 1869-1909. Eliot imagines the 8 million American children attending elementary schools, the 250,000 attending secondary schools, and the 60,000 students in colleges and universities, each receiving age-appropriate instruction regarding George Washington. What do these students learn, and why might it be important? Eliot then speaks on behalf of the 360,000 teachers of the United States: What is their work with respect to Washington, and why is it important? What does Eliot mean, in his last paragraph, by Washington's "reward" and "influence"?
The brief phrase--the schools and colleges of the United States--is a formal and familiar one; but what imagination can grasp the infinitude of human affections, powers, and wills which it really comprises? But let us forget the outward things called schools and colleges, and summon up the human beings. Imagine the eight million children actually in attendance at the elementary schools of the country brought before your view. Each unit in this mass speaks of a glad birth, a brightened home, a mother's pondering heart, a father's careful joy. In all that multitude, every little heart bounds and every eye shines at the name of Washington.
The two hundred and fifty thousand boys and girls in the secondary schools are getting a fuller view of this incomparable character than the younger children can reach. They are old enough to understand his civil as well as his military achievements. They learn of his great part in that immortal Federal convention of 1787, of his inestimable services in organizing and conducting through two Presidential terms the new Government,--services of which he alone was capable,--and of his firm resistance to misguided popular clamor. They see him ultimately victorious in war and successful in peace, but only through much adversity and many obstacles.
Next, picture to yourselves the sixty thousand students in colleges and universities-- selected youth of keen intelligence, wide reading, and high ambition. They are able to compare Washington with the greatest men of other times and countries, and to appreciate the unique quality of his renown. They can set him beside the heroes of romance and history--beside David, Alexander, Pericles, Caesar, Saladin, Charlemagne, Gustavus Adolphus, John Hampden, William the Silent, Peter of Russia, and Frederick the Great, (19) only to find him a nobler human type than any one of them, more complete in his nature, more happy in his cause, and more fortunate in the issues of his career. They are taught to see in him a soldier whose sword wrought only mercy and justice for mankind; a statesman who steadied a remarkable generation of public men by his mental poise and exalted them by his singleness of heart; and a ruler whose exercise of power established for the time on earth a righteous government by all and for all.
And what shall I say on behalf of the three hundred and sixty thousand teachers of the United States? None of them are rich or famous; most of them are poor, retiring, and unnoticed; but it is they who are building a perennial monument to Washington. It is they who give him a million-tongued fame. They make him live again in the young hearts of successive generations, and fix his image there as the American ideal of a public servant. It is through the schools and colleges and the national literature that the heroes of any people win lasting renown; and it is through these same agencies that a nation is molded into the likeness of its heroes.
The commemoration of any one great event in the life of Washington and of the United States is well, but it is nothing compared with the incessant memorial of him which the schools and colleges of the country maintain from generation to generation. What a reward is Washington's! What an influence is his and will be! One mind and will transfused by sympathetic instruction into millions; one life pattern for all public men, teaching what greatness is and what the pathway to undying fame!
Washington the Nation Builder
In this poem (written for the bicentennial celebration of Washington's birth), Edwin Markham (1852-1940) pays tribute to the life of Washington, from his Spartan mother who "called him into Time and kindled duty in him as a flame," until past his end, when "he flamed with God." Where did Washington acquire the virtues needed for nation-building? What, according to the third stanza, is the relation between the "Cause " and Washington's greatness? What, according to the fifth stanza, is Washington's creed? What does Markham mean when he says that Washington "turned from all the tempters, / Stood firm above the perils of success"? Consider the last sentence of the poem: What does it mean to say, "He moves in his serene eternity"? And what is the point of the comparison with Polaris, the North Star?
A Spartan (20) mother called him into Time, And kindled duty in him as a flame; While he was schooled by the primeval hills Of old Virginia--schooled by her mighty woods, Where Indians war-whooped and the wild beast prowled. His name was written on no college scroll; But he drank wisdom from the wilderness. The mountains poured into his soul their strength, The rocks their fortitude, the stars their calm. He grew a silent man; Yet carried on all roads The lofty courtesies, the high reserves. He seemed to know, even in this noise of time, The solemn quiets of Eternity. But fiery energy, a live crater, slept Under that mountain calm; yet never blazed Into a passion, save in some black hour When craven souls betrayed the people. Then He was all sword and flame, a god in arms. With the heart of a child, the wisdom of a sage, He toiled with no self to serve. He grew in greatness, year by luminous year Until he carried empire in his brain. Yet if no Cause, no high commanding Cause, Had called him to the hazard of the deed, None would have guessed his power To build a nation out of chaos, give To her the wings of soaring destinies. But at the Hour, the People knew their Man, The one ordained of Heaven, ordained to stand In the deadly breach and hold the gate for God. And when the Scroll was signed and the glad Bell of Independence echoed round the world, He led his tattered host on stubborn fields, Barefoot and hungry, thru the ice and mire-- Thru dolors, valors, desperations, dreams-- Thru Valley Forge on to world-startling hours When proud Cornwallis yielded up his sword. And all the way, down to the road's last bend, Cool Judgment whispered to his listening mind. Where there was faltering, he was there as faith; Where there was weakness, he was there as strength; Where there was discord, he was there as peace. His trust was in the Ruler of Events-- In Him who watches. He could say, "The ends Are in God's hands. I trust, But while I trust I battle." In this creed, His soul took refuge and his heart found rest. When, after Yorktown, all the guns were husht, Still was our Chieftain on a battle line, Fighting old laws, old manners, old beliefs. He fought the outworn old, And lit new torches for the march ahead. Life tried his soul by all the tests of time-- By hardship, treachery, ingratitude; Yes, even by victory and the loud applause. When fortune flung to him a crown, he flung The bauble back and followed the People's dream. He turned from all the tempters, Stood firm above the perils of success-- Stood like Monadnock (21) high above the clouds. He did the day's work that was given him: He toiled for men until he flamed with God. Now in his greatness, ever superbly lone, He moves in his serene eternity, Like far Polaris wheeling on the North.
Address to a Joint Session of Congress Opening the Celebration of the Bicentennial of the Birth of George Washington
Through most of the calendar year 1932, the American people celebrated the bicentennial of George Washington's birth. On February 22, President Herbert Hoover (1874-1964) opened the celebration with this address to a joint session of Congress. Why--and how--does Hoover say we should commemorate the founder of our country? What does he mean by saying, "The true eulogy of Washington is this mighty Nation"? Despite Washington's lack of spectacular qualities, "Why did his brilliant fellow patriots always ... turn to him?" What, according to Hoover, makes the American system of life "distinctly unique and distinctly American"? Why, according to Hoover, is the Washington monument--rather than a sculptured likeness of him, such as we have of Lincoln and Jefferson in their memorials--the most fitting way to memorialize Washington? Do you agree?
Just 100 years ago in this city Daniel Webster, in commemoration of the birth of George Washington, said:
A hundred years hence, other disciples of Washington will celebrate his birth, with no less of sincere admiration than we now commemorate it. When they shall meet, as we now meet, to do themselves and him that honor, so surely as they shall see the blue summits of his native mountains rise in the horizon, so surely as they shall behold the river on whose banks he lived, and on whose banks he rests, still flowing on toward the sea, so surely may they see, as we now see, the flag of the Union floating on top of the Capitol and then, as now, may the sun in his course visit no land more free, more happy, more lovely, than this, our own country. (22)
The time that Webster looked forward to is here. We "other disciples of Washington" whom he foresaw are gathered today. His prophecy is borne out, his hope fulfilled. That flag "still floats from the top of the Capitol. " It has come unscathed through foreign war and the threat of internal division. Its only change is the symbol of growth. The 13 stars that Washington saw, and the 24 that Webster looked upon, now are 48. The number of those who pay loyalty to that flag has multiplied tenfold. The respect for it beyond our borders, already great when Webster spoke 100 years ago, has increased--not only in proportion to the power it symbolizes, but even more by the measure in which other peoples have embraced the ideals for which it stands. To Webster's expression of hope we may reasonably answer, yes--"The sun in its course visits no land more free, more happy, more lovely, than this, our own country." Proudly we report to our forefathers that the Republic is more secure, more constant, more powerful, more truly great than at any other time in its history.
Today the American people begin a period of tribute and gratitude to this man whom we revere above all other Americans. Continuing until Thanksgiving Day they will commemorate his birth in every home, every school, every church, and every community under our flag.
In all this multitude of shrines and forums they will recount the life history and accomplishments of Washington. It is a time in which we will pause to recall for our own guidance, and to summarize and emphasize for the benefit of our children, the experiences, the achievements, the dangers escaped, the errors redressed--all the lessons that constitute the record of our past.
The ceremonial of commemorating the founder of our country is one of the most solemn that either an individual or a nation ever performs; carried out in high spirit it can be made one of the most fruitful and enriching. It is a thing to be done in the mood of prayer, of communing with the spiritual springs of patriotism and of devotion to country. It is an occasion for looking back to our past, for taking stock of our present and, in the light of both, setting the compass for our future. We look back that we may recall those qualities of Washington's character which made him great, those principles of national conduct which he laid down and by which we have come thus far. We meet to reestablish our contact with them, renew our fidelity to them.
From this national revival of interest in the history of the American Revolution and of the independence of the United States will come a renewal of those inspirations which strengthened the patriots who brought to the world a new concept of human liberty and a new form of government.
So rich and vivid is the record of history, that Washington in our day lives again in the epic of the foundation of the Republic. He appears in the imagination of every succeeding generation as the embodiment of the wisdom, the courage, the patience, the endurance, the statesmanship, and the absence of all mean ambition, which transformed scattered communities of the forest and the frontiers into a unity of free and independent people.
It is not necessary for me to attempt a eulogy of George Washington. That has been done by masters of art and poetry during more than 100 years. To what they have said I attempt to make no addition.
The true eulogy of Washington is this mighty Nation. He contributed more to its origins than any other man. The influence of his character and of his accomplishments has contributed to the building of human freedom and ordered liberty, not alone upon this continent but upon all continents. The part which he played in the creation of our institutions has brought daily harvest of happiness to hundreds of millions of humanity. The inspirations from his genius have lifted the vision of succeeding generations. The definitions of those policies in government which he fathered have stood the test of 150 years of strain and stress.
From the inspiration and the ideals which gave birth to this Nation, there has come the largest measure of liberty that man has yet devised. So securely were the foundations of this free Government laid that the structure has been able to adapt itself to the changing world relations, the revolutions of invention and the revelations of scientific discovery, the fabulous increase of population and of wealth, and yet to stand the kaleidoscopic complexities of life which these changes have brought upon it.
What other great, purely human institution, devised in the era of the stagecoach and the candle, has so marvelously grown and survived into this epoch of the steam engine, the airplane, the incandescent lamp, the wireless telephone, and the battleship?
If we are to get refreshment to our ideals from looking backward to Washington, we should strive to identify the qualities in him that made our revolution a success and our Nation great. Those were the qualities that marked Washington out for immortality.
We find they were not spectacular qualities. He never charged with a victorious army up the capital streets of a conquered enemy. Excepting only Yorktown and Trenton, he won no striking victories. His great military strength was in the strategy of attrition, the patient endurance of adversity, steadfast purpose unbent by defeat. The American shrine most associated with Washington is Valley Forge, and Valley Forge was not a place of victory--except the victory of Washington's fortitude triumphant above the weakness and discouragement of lesser men. Washington had courage without excitement, determination without passion.
The descriptions of George Washington by his contemporaries give us no clear picture of the inner man, the Washington whose spiritual force so palpably dominated his whole epoch. As a mirror, his own writings do him indifferent justice, whilst the writings of others are clouded by their awe or are obscured by their venom. We must deduce mainly from other records why he stood out head and shoulders above all the crowd around him. It was an extraordinary crowd, living at white heat, comprising men as varied, as brilliant, as versatile as the extraordinary demands which the times made upon them. They were men flexible in intellect, and versed in the ways of the world. Yet in every crisis, and for every role they turned to Washington. They forced upon him the command of Indian fighters; they made him a general against trained British troops; they demanded that he be a constitutionalist and a national statesman; they insisted he must guide his country through the skillful ambushes of European kings; they summoned him to establish the nonexistent credit of an insolvent infant nation. Why did his brilliant fellow patriots always thus turn to him?
The answer of history is unmistakable: They brought their problems to Washington because he had more character, a finer character, a purer character, than any other man of his time. In all the shifting pressures of his generation, all men acknowledged that the one irresistible force was the overwhelming impact of his moral power. Motives and men were measured by their stature when standing in his shadow. Slander fell harmless before him, sham hung its head in shame, folly did not risk to look him in the face, corruption slunk from his presence, cowardice dared not show its quaking knees.
In his integrity, all our men of genius in his day found their one sure center of agreement. In his wisdom and authority they found the one sure way to practical fulfillment of their dreams.
We need no attempt at canonization of George Washington. We know he was human, subject to the discouragements and perplexities that come to us all. We know that he had moments of deepest anxiety. We know of his sufferings and the sacrifices and anguish that came to him. We know of his resentment of injustice and misrepresentation. And yet we know that he never lost faith in our people.
Nor have I much patience with those who undertake the irrational humanizing of Washington. He had, indeed, the fine qualities of friendliness, of sociableness, of humanness, of simple hospitality, but we have no need to lower our vision from his unique qualities of greatness, or to seek to depreciate the unparalleled accomplishments of the man who dominated and gave birth to the being of a great nation.
What we have need of today in this celebration is to renew in our people the inspiration that comes from George Washington as a founder of human liberty, as the father of a system of government, as the builder of a system of national life. ...
Upon these foundations of divine inspiration laid by our forefathers, and led by Washington, our Nation has builded up during this century and a half a new system of life, a system unique to the American people. It is hallowed by the sacrifice and glorious valor of men. It is assured by a glorious charter of human rights.
It comprises a political system of self-government by the majority, resting upon the duties of individual men to the community, and of the local communities to the Nation. It is a government designed in spirit to sustain a dual purpose, to protect our people among nations by great national power, and to preserve individual freedom by local self-government.
It comprises a social system free of inherited position, based upon the ideal of equality of all men before the law, the equal privilege of men to strive and to achieve, and the responsibilities of men to their neighbors.
It embraces an economic system based upon the largest degree of freedom and stimulation to initiative and enterprise which can be permitted and still maintain the ideal of equality of opportunity among men.
Finally, it embraces a system of relationships to other nations based upon no thought of imperialism, no desire to dominate; a determined national self-reliance in defense and independence in action; freedom from all commitment to the unknown future, and an aspiration to promote peace and good will among all men.
Perhaps no single part of this system is different from some instance in history or in some other part of the world. But in its composite form it is distinctly unique and distinctly American, a system under which we have reached an assured position among the most powerful of the nations of the world.
This destiny of national greatness was clearly foreseen by George Washington. More fully than any man of his time was he gifted with vision of the future. He spoke habitually of the "American Empire," and predicted its expansion from ocean to ocean. He planned and wrought for the binding forces of transportation and peaceful commerce. He thought in terms of almost imperial grandeur, and he wrought in terms of republican solidity. His far-flung dreams have come true, and he lives today in his works, in the names of our towns or cities and our States, and in the affectionate reverence of us who so immeasurably benefit by his wisdom.
Our American system of national life is dependent upon a trust in the principles of government as established by George Washington; a trust in his example to our people; a trust in and a devotion to religious faith, which he himself so devoutly practiced; a trust in that divine inspiration which he so sedulously invoked and which is expressed in the common mind of our people; and above all a trust in the Divine Providence which has always given guidance to our country.
From Washington's spirit there has grown an infusion of social ideals with the quality of magnanimity: upholding prosperity with generosity, dignity with forbearance, security without privilege, which has raised our institutions to a level of humanity and nobility nowhere else attained.
We have the faith that Webster expressed that 100 years hence our countrymen will again celebrate his birth, will review the memory of his services with no less sincere admiration and gratitude than we now commemorate it, and that they too will see, as we now see, "the flag of the Union floating on the top of the Capitol."
From the room where I conduct my high office I hourly see the monument which Washington's proud and grateful countrymen have raised to his memory. It stands foursquare to the world, its base rooted steadfast in the solid substance of American soil. Its peak rises towards the heavens with matchless serenity and calm. Massive in its proportions, as was the character of Washington himself, overwhelming in its symmetry, simplicity, and sincerity, it most fittingly, beautifully, and nobly proclaims the founder of our commonwealth and our acceptance of his faith. Around that monument have grown steadily and surely the benevolent and beneficent agencies of orderly government dedicated to the spirit of Washington.
Beyond any other monument built by the hand of man out of clay and stone, this shaft is a thing of the spirit. Whether seen in darkness or in light, in brightness or in gloom, there is about it a mantle of pure radiance which gives it the aspect of eternal truth. It is a pledge in the sight of all mankind, given by Washington's countrymen, to carry forward the continuing fulfillment of his vision of America.
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|Title Annotation:||THE MEANING OF GEORGE WASHINGTON'S BIRTHDAY: The American Calendar|
|Publication:||AEI Paper & Studies|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2013|
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