Tuesday, January 20, 2009

George Washington

For those of us who were roused by Barack Obama's many inspirational campaign speeches, the Inaugural Address was something of a downer. We don't usually enjoy receiving a lecture about how tough times are and how we need to shape up. But we can still be cheered by the promise that the new administration represents a clean break with the past. President Obama unequivocally renounced the idea that government should step back and let the markets take care of themselves. He also clearly renounced the idea that we must sacrifice or bend our principles in fighting the so-called war on terror. These promises of a new beginning give reason for hope.

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.

1 comment:

  1. I love your blogs! I remember when I first got on Facebook, and I clicked on your law firm blog, out of curiousity. I've especially enjoyed the blogs during this campaign. This one, especially.