I just finished reading David McCullough’s “1776”. It’s the account of, not the entire American Revolution, but that one key year in which America declared her independence. It was a year filled mostly with defeat and setback, yet it also help a few key victories that are credited with changing the course of history. The book is written in a very readable way, not a stuffy history tome that will put you to sleep. Through first-hand accounts, McCullough weaves a very interesting, yet factual, history of what we now celebrate as our nation’s first year.
One of the things that really stood out to me were the men who led the Continental army, and none stood out more than the commander-in-chief, George Washington. Perhaps the most celebrated figure in American political history, General Washington is given a very even=handed look in “1776.” He was far from flawless, far from perfect, but the man held together a ragtag army through unbelievable circumstances and, in the end, defeated a foe that few, if any, thought he could.
The thing that hit me the most about Washington can be surmised from a quote taken from a letter Washington sent to the members of Congress, after they had pretty much given him the ability to become the military dictator of America:
“Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of their confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword was the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.” (1776, pg. 286)
When handed the reins to the nation, Washington took them only in order to gain independence, and then laid them down. In fact, history tells us that Washington is responsible for many of the limitations on the powers of the President (at least, what used to be limitations on that power). When the people sought to make “His excellency” their king, Washington resisted. He would only become President somewhat reluctantly.
Does that shock you like it did me? The political figures I’ve grown up with do not seem to fit that mold too well. Most spend their lives positioning and fashioning a persona that will allow them to win the highest office in the land. Few turn away from power, or downplay the unbelievable power already in their grasp. Washington was one such man. No doubt, there are others out there, but, in today’s world, can they ever rise to that office? And if they do (or have), will they change the office, or will it change them?
In thinking back to the beginnings of our country in a time when so many of the freedoms and liberties that the brave men of that Continental Army fought and died for, I can’t help but wonder, “where are the leaders like George Washington? Or John Adams? Or Nathaniel Greene?” Those are the types of men I could gladly give my vote to.