Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Everyone was expecting references to Abraham Lincoln, and of course there are historical parallels to Kennedy and to Roosevelt, but Obama probably surprised a lot of people by invoking George Washington. The parts of his inauguration speech that announced the clearest breaks with the prior administration are those that said that no matter how serious the challenges, this country should not let go of its ideals. George Washington's actions may represent the best example from our history of this principle. When General Washington's army was forced to retreat from New York, the whole Revolution looked like it would soon come to an inglorious end. Yet Washington managed to lead his ragtag army on the attack against the British several times in the midst of a bitter cold winter, by crossing the Delaware, by defending Trenton, and by marching overnight to Princeton to surprise the unguarded British outpost. In the course of that struggle, Washington made clear that contrary to the British practice, the American army would treat its prisoners humanely. (I recommend Washington's Crossing, by David Fischer, for anyone who wants to read more about this episode. Fischer also offers Washington's example as a direct rebuke to the shameful practices of the Bush administration.)
Paying tribute to George Washington also reminds us that Washington led a revolutionary movement to establish a radically new form of government, and that he helped make sure there would be no more kings in America, and that Washington as President would not be treated like a king. Obama's campaign also stood for putting the people in charge of the government.
It is also worth noting that the quotation that Washington ordered read to the troops was from Tom Paine. So while referencing the safe figure of Washington, Obama subtly slipped in an unattributed quotation from the most radical of the founders.
There is a lot of talk now about post-partisanship, and about responsibility. These were important themes of the inaugural address. But the address ended with a story about the father of our country, signaling a new beginning, and a sharp break from the past. Washington's example serves as a reminder that this country has faced difficult times before, and has emerged triumphant by adhering to its founding principles, not abandoning them.