Last Friday, just days before the shutdown of the federal government, a library opened at Mount Vernon, just 16 miles from the nation’s capital, to house the books and papers of George Washington. Included in the new $100 million structure is a special wing, one dedicated to the leadership training of politicians and others, based on the founder’s qualities of character.
In times of crisis, Americans often look to Washington (the man, not the place), hoping to find a model for leadership, a timeless truth, perhaps a moral precedent. In 2012, for example, a “gang of eight” senators met at Mount Vernon, trying to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term debt. They failed. But by negotiating at George Washington’s homestead, said Sen. Mark Warner (D) of Virginia, it “sure did drive the point home” about the need to find a consensus to solve the country’s biggest problem.
In the current feud over “Obamacare” and government funding, leadership has largely been missing. Washington himself experienced similar dysfunction early on when he went to the Senate to seek its advice on a treaty. The nation’s war hero left in disgust at the chaos he encountered in the upper chamber.
He also witnessed the origins of political parties in the new republic when a major dispute erupted between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton over whether to start a national bank. The political lines were then drawn on the limits and purposes of government. In his 1796 Farewell Address, he warned of the dangers of party rancor: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism.”
Perhaps Washington silently wondered if the young republic was only tilting at windmills in its aspirations. On the day that Congress approved the Constitution, he bought a copy of “Don Quixote.”
Yet as in war so in peace, the stoic leader kept his civility and self-restraint, always seeking a greater good while finding a way to give political opponents a way to save face. His actions often spoke loudly, such as when he did not seek a third term. He thus set a precedent on the peaceful transfer of power in a democracy and in sending a signal that the country should not put too much stock in one person.
“History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country,” writes Ron Chernow, author of “Washington: A Life,” a 2010 biography. “Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene.”
The danger in looking for answers in historical figures such as Washington is that it diminishes the public deliberations that are so necessary to find solutions. Democracy relies on citizen debate, although it falters when debate turns to dissension. Even Washington, during the Whiskey Rebellion, condemned “democratic societies” that stirred public passions.
One of his greatest strengths was his silence. Washington was largely quiet while presiding over the Constitutional Convention. He probably knew that leaders should often allow others to find their way in difficult discussions about the future.
He never was able to build a library for his books. Now his estate finally has one, and it includes a wing for the training of leaders. Washington would probably be torn on how much today’s Americans should look to him for guidance during this latest crisis in the city named after him. Perhaps in his silence, Americans can learn how to find a way out of the “frightful despotism” of this government shutdown.