Sunday, February 20, 2011

President Washington

George Washington, Father of Our Country, is often recognized as being central to our winning our independence, and his role as the first president – and first precedence setter – is also recognized – at least by historians. But, in large part he has fallen into a limbo of ancient symbol, but not a man who is respected as essential figure of our nation's finding, and arguably, as the single irreplaceable man of the last three centuries. And there is no place where this forgotten role is more pronounced then in his role as the President of the Constitutional Convention.

The fact is that leadership – that is, those positions where an individual has real authority over others – is often written about. But in most cases those who right about it have had little or no first-hand experience with actual leadership, that is they have rarely had authority over other, they have rarely held power. This lack of a frame of reference has led to there being little in the way of leadership discussions in which the debilitating nature of power is discussed, or to any discussion which reflects the real difficulties faced by those who have held power and managed to – somehow – behave in a truly superior, exemplary manner, one which can be used as a precedent for future generations, nor finally the very real difficulty of leading exceptional people, particularly when the direction chosen is truly uncharted territory.

It is in this final situation that our young nation found itself following our victory in Revolutionary War. We had our independence, but the Articles of Confederation left us with little in the way of an effective government and the need to form a new government was recognized by the leaders of the day. Central to the very idea that a new government could be formed was the notion that George Washington would be available in some way to lend his support to that new government. And Washington wrote and spoke of the need for a strong executive, one that had been avoided in the Articles of Confederation. In fact, it is fair to say that the Constitutional Convention that met in Philadelphia would probably not have met at all if the participants did not include Washington. And while one might have eventually met, it would have been far different in fact.

What exactly transpired at the convention on a day-to-day basis has never been known, as the members kept private most specific word-for-word, day-to-day discussions – intentionally. Madison provided daily notes on the proceedings, and many of the members provided summations after the fact, and these provide a great deal of insight into the vigorous debates by the members. What is of particular note is that Washington's words were only noted once, in reference to representation in Congress and how to assign Congressman by census – an important point but not earth shattering.

But what is missed by most historians is what is not there: the convention did not come apart at the seams. This seems, at this date more than 220 years later, as a foregone conclusion. These were some of the greatest men who ever lived, and the names are a list of some of the truly most exceptional political thinkers – and leaders – of any era: Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton – the list goes on.

But I look at the list of figures from a different perspective. Having been in the position of leading groups of very bright and very talented people (not to imply that anyone has ever had any other group as bright and as talented as those at the Constitutional Convention), particularly when we had to institute real change – where success would be difficult to define but failure would be easily identified, I submit that that can be as difficult a leadership task as one can imagine.

All of the men at the Constitutional Convention were brilliant, opinionated, strong-willed, and dynamic figures. All had in one way or another demonstrated that they could lead. All had very real concerns about where the young nation was headed and very real concerns about the laws, the foundation, on which it was to be built. All were aware that they were charting a course into 'seas' that had, in the previous 2500 years failed to produce any nation that had lasted more than a few generations. We have heard that leading is sometimes like 'herding cats.' But Washington was not herding cats. He was, if anything herding a room full of tigers.

And from this came the single most remarkable political document ever drafted, the model for virtually every constitution drafted since, and the foundation of the greatest nation in history.

I cannot but wonder what would have happened if George Washington had not been sitting with them, listening, providing the firm hand and fatherly guidance, the stern face and, rarely, the sharp word in private, that would have been absolutely essential to bring these brilliant men together. Yet there is in that behavior the very thing that would have prevented any of these men from writing about it. There own dignity, and Washington's, and their respect for Washington, would have forbidden any recognition of it. It was enough for them all to simply remember that Washington had been there, that in the end they had performed well and received his approval.

Washington performed in three truly remarkable leadership rolls: as the General who brought victory over the British, as the President of the Constitutional Convention, and as the first – and most important – President of this nation. The first and third are, at least, remembered in passing, though we forget just how 'close run a thing' both the war and the first few decades really were. But we have all but forgotten his role as the man who presided over the Constitutional Convention, an act of leadership that I submit rivals the other two.

In our minds' eye we might see them, brilliant, pointed debate moving around the room, sometimes rancorous, sometimes threatening to stall on this or that point, whether from legal interpretation or regional predilection, but always moving forward, producing a document that would not only be approved by the separate states, but would also produce a nation that has survived longer then any other true democracy in history, and has proven that government of, by and for the people is possible. And at the head table sits Washington, the silent conductor of the convention.

February 22nd is the 279th anniversary of George Washington.  Happy Birthday Mr. President.


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