We celebrated George Washington’s birthday this week. Though the official holiday was observed on Monday, Washington’s actual birthday is Saturday, Feb. 22.
In Washington, D.C. — our nation’s capital, named after the great man himself — how are the stewards of our republic celebrating? By binge-watching season two of the Netflix-produced drama, “House of Cards.”
The series features the Machiavellian plotting of the fictional Rep. Frank Underwood, portrayed to great critical acclaim by Kevin Spacey. At the opening of the first series, Underwood learns that President Walker will not be appointing him secretary of state, as he had previously promised. His ambition thwarted, Underwood resolves to ruin the man nominated in his place and ultimately to destroy the president himself. As the series unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that Underwood’s lust for power knows no limits and that no moral scruple will deter him from his quest to claim the Oval Office for himself.
I’d be a lot more comfortable if our politicians spent less time enjoying Underwood’s loathsome efforts to subvert our republican government and more time trying to emulate Washington, the man who did more than any other person to make our republican form of government possible.
Perhaps, in the secret depths of his heart, Washington was ambitious, but he never allowed himself to give any public sign of wanting command or office. Appointed to the supreme leadership of all the continental armies, he wrote to his wife: “You may believe me, my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that so far from seeking this appointment, I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity.”
In terms more formal and less emotional, Washington wrote the same to all of his correspondents.
When, in March 1783, with the war effectively won but the troops unpaid, a group of officers assembled to contemplate marching on Congress to demand their salaries, Washington could have taken the opportunity to place himself at the head of the conspiracy and with its support made himself military ruler of America. Instead, he spoke sternly against those who would “open the flood gates of civil discord.”
At the end of his own remarks, Washington began to read from a letter to the troops written by a member of Congress. To read the small, unfamiliar handwriting, the 51-year-old Washington had to put on glasses — something he had not allowed any but his closest intimates to see. When the men voiced their surprise, Washington apologized, saying that he had not only grown gray but nearly blind in the service of his country. This modest display brought tears to the soldiers’ eyes, and inspired by Washington’s service, they abandoned the mutinous plot.
That December, Washington graciously resigned his own commission. In his address on that occasion to Congress, Washington said he resigned “with satisfaction” the appointment he had accepted, though distrusting his abilities to perform the task demanded of him. Rather than boast of his own successes, he thanked Providence and proposed to “retire from the great theater of action” and “take leave of all the employments of private life.”
Much as he would have preferred to remain at Mount Vernon, he agreed to preside over the constitutional convention, and subsequently agreed to become the first president of the United States. His first inaugural began by expressing his anxieties at having been summoned to the office and his sincere regret at having had to abandon his resolution to live out his days as a private citizen. His most notable act as president may well have been his refusal to stand for election to a third term of office, setting an example of republican modesty followed by all of his successors until Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
What sort of dramas did Washington enjoy? His favorite play was Joseph Addison’s “Cato.” Set in the last days of the Roman Republic, when Caesar is about to accomplish everything Underwood dreams of, it celebrates the virtue of Cato who, like Washington himself, dedicated his life to the preservation of free government and inspired those around him to live up to the noblest ideals.
Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.