February 22, 2018
George Washington, Donald Trump, and the End of Humility
In seemingly every possible way—with his tweets, with style and substance based more on reality TV than reality, with a dismissal not just of facts but of fact itself, with outright rejection of the concept of ethics—Donald Trump has brought that long tradition of humility to a thudding end even before entering office. In doing so, he gives the finger to George Washington and those who followed him. His behavior tells us that he thinks of them as fools for acting as though ideals and the meanings of words mattered.–Russell Shorto
On April 16, 1789, George Washington stepped into a carriage at Mount Vernon, his Virginia estate, and rumbled off toward New York and the Presidency. Far from feeling flush with imminent power, he told his diary that he contemplated the task ahead “with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.”
Washington had not wanted the job but had bowed to the common wisdom that he was the only person with the respect and regard to be generally accepted as the nation’s first chief executive. Yet the mere thought of assuming the Presidency, he told Alexander Hamilton, cast “a gloom upon my mind.” One reason was surely exhaustion. After years of punishing military service, his body was giving out. He had become hard of hearing; he had exactly one of his own teeth in his mouth. He was fifty-seven but felt much older.
There were other reasons for the gloom, too. In presiding over the Constitutional Convention, two years earlier, he had lent his weight to the Federalists, who argued that the nation would collapse without a strong central government. At the same time, he had supported the Bill of Rights, and with it the idea that the new nation must commit itself to safeguarding its citizens’ basic rights and freedoms.
These were unprecedented notions on which to build a political system, and seemingly contradictory ones at that, so Washington knew that living up to them would be onerous. How to balance the power of the federal government against the primacy of individual rights? The Anti-Federalists, who believed that the Constitution came dangerously close to granting the President autocratic powers, had, he knew, valid concerns. And he feared that the very factionalism that the Federalists and Anti-Federalists personified was liable to cripple the whole project.
Washington was not the deep and imaginative thinker that Hamilton was, or that Thomas Jefferson or James Madison were. And he was morally compromised by the issue of slavery: he owned slaves, and while he privately denounced the institution he did nothing to stop it from spreading and infecting the new nation. But, if he was a product of his time and privileged circumstances, he was also a man of basic morality: he fretted, fumed, and agonized over doing the right thing, in instances large and small.
This combination of forces weighed him down. The Presidency was, and has been ever since, an impossibly large task, and anyone who has approached the office with even a modicum of humility—that is to say, most every President up to now—has done so in emulation of Washington.
In seemingly every possible way—with his tweets, with style and substance based more on reality TV than reality, with a dismissal not just of facts but of fact itself, with outright rejection of the concept of ethics—Donald Trump has brought that long tradition of humility to a thudding end even before entering office. In doing so, he gives the finger to George Washington and those who followed him. His behavior tells us that he thinks of them as fools for acting as though ideals and the meanings of words mattered.
Washington took words seriously. He ardently believed in what he called “natural justice,” and understood that those who took positions of power in government were to be its custodians. He knew that the job of President must support what he referred to as the “innate spirit of freedom.” These were not mere phrases. He had fought through mud and bullets for eight long years out of a commitment to what they represented; in watching ordinary farmer-soldiers do likewise, he had seen how such airy notions took corporeal substance.
Washington was keenly aware that he was walking, as he said, “on untrodden ground.” He established rituals not for decorum’s sake but to root the Presidency in the deep meaning of those ideas: “it is devoutly wished on my part,” he told James Madison, “that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” He very deliberately chose not to be called His Excellency but, rather, Mr. President. A less noticeable precedent that Washington set, which has remained to this day part of our idea of the Presidency, comes from his background. He was a product of Virginia’s tobacco-planter culture, in which a leader was someone who sat literally high on his horse, reserved, level-headed, above the fray. His generation adopted an idealized model of public service derived from ancient Rome, in particular from the statesman Cato as he appeared in Joseph Addison’s play “The Tragedy of Cato.” “Thy life is not thy own when Rome demands it,” the great man intones. More than any of his contemporaries, Washington held to this as a personal ideal. In 1776, he talked about the conflict with England not in terms of America or justice but “the cause of virtue.” As far as Washington was concerned, he was fighting in the name of goodness, honesty, rectitude, decency.
Models are models: no one lives up to them. But Washington brought with him from Mount Vernon as part of his baggage his generation’s reverence for public service, which Paul K. Longmore, the Washington biographer, summarized as “their ideals of patriotism, selflessness and emotional self-mastery.” Those elements have remained attached to our own model of the Presidency.
George Washington was incapable of lying whereas Trump has difficulty in speaking the truth. That is why he will never be George POTUS 1
If those who feel dread at the coming Administration want to express the source of their anxiety to others who do not comprehend their feelings, they might point to this discrepancy between the first President and the forty-fifth as each man stood on the brink of the office. As his carriage reached the shores of the Hudson River, Washington noted the cheering throngs; their cries, he said, “filled my mind with sensations as painful . . . as they are pleasing.” Painful because he knew what people expected of him, and he very reasonably questioned his ability to live up to it. It is human to feel the weight of such a burden. Knowing that the man about to assume power feels that moral burden is vital to us, for it suggests that he will govern with compassion, in “the cause of virtue.” That is what we have come to expect. More than that, it’s what we demand.