Inspired by the upcoming President’s Day I want to plug a great biography I’ve just finished. It’s Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life. It’s a compelling read detailing the life of – no surprise here – our first president. Now, that was a man who overcame adversity! The whole time I was reading the book I kept thinking to myself: people were so much stronger back then. Setting aside the strength of character he showed in politics and service later in his life, George Washington almost died many times, in various battles and from myriad illnesses, before a single shot had been fired in America’s Revolutionary War. Simply surviving to the age of twenty back in those days was nowhere near the given that it is in our time. And yet, the Founding Fathers navigated the trials of a dangerous and changing world with such integrity and strength. It’s really worth reading, if only to show you what true human greatness is.
My husband recently asked me: “What do you think the Founding Fathers would think if they saw our country today?” I’ve been thinking about this question since then. I have no doubt that our Founding Fathers would be humbled by the men and women in the Armed Forces, private citizens who jump to serve our nation and protect our freedoms. I have no doubt the Founding Fathers would marvel at the advances that we as a people have made in science, healthcare, and technology. They would be agog at the skyscrapers, cell phones and airplanes that we now take as regular features of our daily lives in America. But I think that, like most Americans, George Washington would be unimpressed with the current spirit of uncompromising partisanship in his namesake city. After all, in his final speech as President, Washington warned against the dangers of a nation that becomes polarized, its elected officials too rigid to work together with a pragmatic approach and willingness to respect opposing viewpoints.
I also wonder what Washington would have thought about the current state of voter apathy. The Founding Fathers were many things – but a few things they were not: apathetic. Complacent. Content to take self-governance for granted. They had, after all, risked their lives to win this radical new thing called democracy.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The sun has not caught me in bed in fifty years.” That’s right: up before sunrise, down after sunset. Every day for fifty years. This was a man, who like many of his peers and colleagues, was a great statesman, a lawyer, a scientist, an inventor, an architect, a farmer, and not to mention, President and writer of the Declaration of Independence. Say what you will about his personal choices – Thomas Jefferson was undisputably brilliant and industrious. It certainly inspires me and makes me feel that I squander far too much time.
John Adams – another man who dedicated his life to ensuring that America won its independence, and then, once won, did not squander it – described being humbled by the oath of office he took as the second president. He was following a powerful and popular man who could have easily made himself King George Washington. In fact, the idea of Washington ruling for life was a popular one. The people adored him. Yet Washington walked away from power after two terms. He willingly handed over the title and office to John Adams, setting the precedent that the desire and will of an individual in America must always yield to the greater good of the Republic and its people.
And did you know this Founding Fathers fun fact? Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, life-long rivals and old friends, died fifty years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1826. Perhaps that is an uncanny coincidence, or perhaps there was what the Founding Fathers would have called “Divine Providence” at play.