I read the recent biography of George Washington by Joseph Ellis and I came away from it rather astounded and impressed with Washington’s courage, ability and demeanor. It’s as if I had no idea whatsoever prior to then why he was considered heroic. A lot of blanks were filled in for me by that.
With respect to my knowledge and worldview, it reinforced my way of asking “Who’s your leviathan?” as an economic analysis of what lengths petitioners are willing to go in order to fulfill their political desires. It also underscored the virtue demanded of leadership often lacking in other revolutionary vanguards. It amplified my security in my own patriotism with regard to what I want from and expect from America, which was most clearly established for me in the writings of Emerson. But it did so by giving me a clearer picture of the personal valor expressed in the matter of the Founders’ pledge of ‘sacred honor’. In sum, with other experiences, my reading of Washington solidified my view of the personal, yeoman, non-institutional, militant character of the defense of liberty, and the distance from that level of ‘aristocracy of merit’ we modern citizens suffer, in our desire to have institutions serve as our moral proxies in defense of our rights and freedoms.
In my own personal development, that era of study helped me stand aside from modernity to understand what more truly defines quality of life. It helped me to ask the questions of what various types of systems could provide such quality, and what the trade-offs are. From there I began to develop my Peasant Theory, a functional definition of class based upon the premise that institutions will fail, and specifically that when democratic institutions fail, people will default to more tribal and hierarchical institutions. One hopes such proto-democratic systems would be led by charismatics as principled and capable as Washington, but that we just lucked out. It also underscored something that has always resonated with me that ‘nobility has no permanent address’, meaning you never know where or when the George Washington’s of the world will emerge. That advantage has to be taken when such people rise to power, but always the same kingly lessons and disciplines are necessary.
Washington was not born to be a king, but had every attribute. And in his example, we learn what a new kind of powerful man could be, abetted by a Constitutional democracy, and what potential we all might have were we to apply ourselves as he did. A very tall order indeed.
What we need to ask ourselves today is how large America should be. Should it attempt to become an empire or should it remain a republic? Our presidents remain in the shadows of Washington’s greatness.
I have hope and investment in the fact that some necessary and sufficient fraction of Americans living today and yet to be born, will appropriate the proper lessons of character the founders laid before us, and that in some fashion their ideas of constitutional republic will be sustained. Whether that is in a colony, a nation, a state or a city-state is almost irrelevant, so long as the liberty is clear and present. I expect most of mankind will try and miss the mark, but it remains the mark of reference.