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Carole Owens: The wisdom of Washington and the debt to democracy today

Cindylou Molnar

Cindylou Molnar, head of conservation at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, speaks about a 1796 portrait of George Washington. "The story of Washington and his inability to tell a lie is another about how to be an American. Truth is indispensable to a liberated people," writes Carole Owens.

It is a compelling image. An old man walks through the city streets in the early hours of a March morning. He is straight-backed and purposeful. Even so close to the end of his life, he knows that today he will do something great — perhaps the greatest single thing in his not inconsequential life.

This republic of ours has role models and pedagogical stories — good ones. They tell us how to be us. One story, featuring General George Washington and King George III, goes like this. It is 1783. The Revolutionary War is over, and Washington is the unexpected victor. Most assume he will hold onto to power, vanquishing the unpopular British monarch to become a popular American monarch. Instead, he announces he will resign his commission and retire to Mount Vernon. When King George III learns of Washington’s intent, he remarks, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Is the story true or apocryphal? The story is true without being correct in all its details. King George III told artist Benjamin West that Washington would be “the greatest character of the age” upon hearing that Washington would step down from the presidency in America’s first peaceful transfer of power. The King said it not in 1783 but in 1797.

So there he is, March 4, 1797, the greatest character of the age, George Washington walking the streets of Philadelphia from President’s House to the House of Representatives Chamber Hall of Congress. There he will hand the power of the American presidency to John Adams and quietly retire without a shot fired or an angry word uttered. That is American exceptionalism, just that and one thing more: the willingness to give up power without violence and the willingness to share power with the people rather than seize it, clutch it and inflict it upon the people.

A far cry from Washington’s wisdom

Compare that to recent events — to the obsessions and actions of some modern Americans. The country is sick, and the cancer is metastasizing. The illness is purposefully inflicted. We have a right to know how it is done because it is being done to us. We have a right to understand why it is being done so that while we still have the power, we exercise it wisely, and conquer the illness.

The story of Washington and his inability to tell a lie is another about how to be an American. Truth is indispensable to a liberated people. Lies shield wrongdoers from consequences and hide the real deal from everyone. Truth enlightens and empowers the people. Lies corrupt, confuse and enervate.

Washington wrote a book, “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation.” He introduced the volume saying, “Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect.” To respect others, their unique identity and their right to privacy, to give dignified response even to divergent ideas, is a cornerstone of our founding principles. It is not who we always are but should be who we always strive to be.

Finally, in his farewell address on that day in March, Washington said that there will always be those who wish to disunite us, to weaken us and our resolve. Resist and protect our way of life. Taken together, these four principles might be all you need to know about how to be a productive member of our American democracy: relinquishing power for the common good, telling the truth even when it may harm you, respecting your fellows and remaining united.

Hard lessons we must relearn

To what do we aspire today? We are taught democracy is such an intelligent and benevolent form of government that everyone would want it, and anyone would defend it. That is myth. Not everyone prefers democracy; some prefer having the power all to themselves. A few, an ever more easily recognizable few, search for ways to win power without the majority — to foster minority rule — to undermine democracy. Folks are surprised, and a tad displeased, that there isn’t a law against such things — the dissembling and the disassembling.

In a free country, there is the formal organization (what is lawful and unlawful) and the informal organization (what is socially acceptable, and what is not). The informal organization supports and informs the formal organization. To discount the power of the informal organization is to diminish the power of the people.

No matter how powerful American representatives or presidents feel, the people can “throw the bums out,” but also, power extends beyond the vote and jury duty. The power of the people extends to what they will accept, not just in the courtroom, but in the living room and the corner office. It includes what we as a people deem socially acceptable. We can eschew the liars. We can turn our backs on those who denigrate our democracy and the rights it affords. We can stop the conspiracy theories and the rumor mill by refusing to engage.

These behaviors are the undoing of all that we rely on to continue to be us; these behaviors are how the illness is spread. Holding fast to our values, to who we are and who we aspire to be, is how we heal the open wounds of the last half-decade.

Tell the stories, resurrect the heroes of our founding. Hold fast to who we are trying to be and beware: “If you’re going to fight evil, be careful you don’t become the very evil you are fighting.”

Carole Owens, a writer and historian, is a regular Eagle contributor.

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