Monday, February 22, 2010

Judging George

Through the years I've chewed on this question from time to time: Which is the more significant achievement, founding a new political order or maintaining an existing one? The lion's share of political philosophy is, if I may generalize, focused on founding. It is surely the more glamorous of the two enterprises, almost by definition. The end of the task is, after all, something new. Maintaining by comparison is, well, maintenance, mostly patching and painting.

A founder, however, does no patching and paints only on a more or less clean canvas. The very likely extreme nature of the crisis that afforded the opportunity for the creation of something new altogether, means the constraints will be few and the freedom of action broad, very broad. As a result, unlike any other individual, the founder is able to make his mark, create in his own image even, if he is suitably talented, and sufficiently bold. (I can almost see and hear those inclined toward intellectual Romanticism rising to applaud.)

But life experience (coupled with a contrary nature) has forced me to question this perhaps too easy conclusion. That experience taught me that the restrictions imposed by an established order are very great indeed. In even the most humble of institutions like, for example, your local church, attempts to simply start over are usually met with tremendous resistance, and this is so even when the institution is faced with a life or death emergency. The fixed patterns of behavior, the governing mores, and even the simple habits of the heart conspire together to severely limit the menu of options available to the maintainer, making his task extraordinarily difficult. More difficult, perhaps, than even that of the founder.

In American political history, the surpassing models of these two types, and our two greatest presidents, are, of course, Washington the founder, and Lincoln the maintainer. I will anticipate some of you protesting that Lincoln, too, was a founder. That he indeed did create anew, essentially midwifing "a new birth of freedom" for our country. My only response would be that whatever we may think of him, he apparently didn't see himself filling that role. Rather, he viewed his purpose as that of calling us always back to the founding, to the original principles expressed most clearly in the Declaration of Independence. Even his language, "mystic chords of memory", revealed a reforming, and not a revolutionary sensibility. Now, if I'm right about the relative significance of the founder versus the maintainer, and also correct that Lincoln typified the latter, then just maybe Lincoln, and not Washington, deserves instead a place first in the hearts of his countrymen.

But then what of old George, the father of our country? Hasn't he suffered enough already at the hands of contemporary academics and the PC revisionists beyond number? You do know he owned slaves, don't you? Well, in spite of all this, I think it might just be possible to both rescue and secure his position as number one.

Founding, as significant as it is, should never be celebrated in and of itself. It should always beg another question: Was the founding of something good, or not? In answering that question, can there be any doubt that founder George Washington played the indispensable role in the creation of this, the greatest, in every sense, country that ever was created? For that, I'll raise my glass and say with a host of others, "Happy Birthday Mr. President!"