REARVIEW MIRROR

What makes George Washington different than President-Elect Donald Trump? One traveled the road to national unification 227 years ago, while the other has taken the path to self-glorification.

On April 16, 1789, Washington reluctantly left his beloved plantation home in Mt. Vernon, Virginia to travel to New York City, then the nation’s capital, headed for his April 30 inauguration as first president of the United States.

For Washington, the trip represented a grueling eight-day coach ride over rutted, dust-choked dirt roads bunking down nights at public inns and taverns that offered uncomfortable sleeping accommodations and unpalatable food.

Even more difficult than the arduous trip was the political minefield Washington traversed.

After the Revolutionary War, Britain’s former American colonies became a loose confederation of states with a central authority so weak it was couldn’t adequately protect the new country from foreign threats or create robust commerce within its borders. Washington feared this system would soon lead to disintegration or demagoguery and presided over a 1787 Philadelphia convention which drafted the blueprint for a stronger central government — the U.S. Constitution.

The Constitution went into effect on June 21, 1788, after being narrowly ratified by nine of 13 state legislatures, but it still faced fierce criticism and had yet to be approved by North Carolina and Rhode Island when Washington embarked for New York City in 1789.

Though carefully crafted, the Constitution was silent on many things. For instance, it offered no guidance regarding how the chief executive of the United States was to relate to the people of this fledgling republic. Was Washington to be addressed like a European monarch and hailed as “Excellency,” “Majesty” or “Highness,” or was he to be simply called “President”?

As a result, Washington knew, everything he did and said on the road would be closely watched as political theater and interpreted for clues as to how the federal government would actually function and impact people’s daily lives. His critical mission was to behave in a way that would rally fractious Americans to the reality, not just the abstraction, of a united republic.

The story of this and several subsequent journeys Washington undertook to all regions and states of the U.S. between 1789 and 1791 is the subject of a fascinating 2016 book by historian T.H. Breen, entitled “George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation.”

Through his innate sense of dignity, knack for inspiring loyalty and respect and careful observation of the public’s reaction at each step of his journeys, Washington used these forays not only to create a sense of allegiance to the federal government but to fashion an ad-hoc standard of presidential comportment — one that was confident and statesmanlike, yet modest and approachable. In effect, he created an unwritten code which served the nation well and was followed by his successors — at least until November 8, when Donald Trump was elected our 45th President.

In reading Breen’s book, it’s hard not to draw negative comparisons between the first and current president-elect. Though they have some things in common (great wealth, thinned-skinned sensitivity to criticism and distrust of the press), Washington, in contrast to Trump, always took the high road.

Let’s leave aside Trump’s appalling campaign behavior and just consider what he’s said and done since his election. Following a brief spell of calls for unity and tolerance, Trump’s speeches, tweets and interviews have turned into exercises in belligerence, self-congratulation, braggadocio, sarcastic personal attacks, and blatant interference with foreign policy positions of the sitting president.

Though it’s clear from Washington’s correspondence with confidantes that he had strong feelings about the political issues and players of his day, he took great pains to appear above the fray and to avoid engaging in personal attacks. He acted with admirable restraint despite the fact that he, unlike Trump, had been unanimously elected by the Electoral College, and, as hero of the Revolutionary War, enjoyed enormous personal popularity.

On his journeys, Washington, who was, by nature, socially reserved and formal, fashioned a suitable public persona for his new office.

He endured the endless parades, toasts, militia musters, speeches, receptions and festivities offered by locals at every stop. He made sure he met and was seen by common folks and not just elite planters and wealthy merchants. He rode in a modest two-horse carriage, accompanied by only a small retinue, and insisted on spending nights in inns and taverns rather than the grand homes and plantations of well-healed hosts. Before arriving at destinations, he exited his carriage, mounted a horse, and rode alone into the town or city, nodding to onlookers who lined the streets, saluting cheering supporters, and doffing his hat to ladies. At every reception, he received lavish praise but invariably responded with personal modesty and circumspection, de-emphasizing his own importance and reminding listeners of his core message —  that that a strong federal government under the Constitution was necessary to make the republic work.

Washington knew he had to earn the public’s trust for a new form of government and the office of chief executive. Therefore, he was careful not to offend and took pains to display dress and deportment appropriate to each occasion. In so doing, he communicated in a powerful way that he was the president of all the people, even the many who could not vote in an era when the franchise was limited to white male property owners.

Washington’s message and manner on his journeys were all about the good of the country. Trump’s, on the other hand, have been largely about himself. 

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 10 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer.


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