I was in New York City this weekend, so I made a pilgrimage down to Federal Hall in lower Manhattan. The site was our nation’s first capitol under the Constitution; on those grounds, George Washington was inaugurated as the first of our 44 presidents. Federal Hall was also the site of the convening of the first Congress under the newly adopted Constitution. There, under the leadership of James Madison and others, Congress adopted the Bill of Rights and sent it to the 13 colonies for approval.
Today, a giant statue of Washington, right hand outstretched to sit on a Bible as he took the oath of office, looms over the site. It’s the kind of place that naturally sets you to musing about how far we’ve come as a country and where we might be heading, and these days that isn’t always a comforting topic.
As far as I know, for example, Washington was not the sort of man who needed to boast in public about his “hand size.” Nor is there any record of him posing as his own PR man so that he could brag shamelessly in the third person about all the young women that he had bedded. “Play not the Peacock,” Washington admonished himself in the notebooks that he kept as a young man.
“Let your conversation be without malice or envy …. Use no Reproachfull Language against any one, neither Curse nor Revile,” Washington wrote in those notebooks. “Detract not from others, neither be excessive in Commanding.”
We are in danger of gravitating toward a different sort these days.
Later, as president, Washington sought to build a nation “which gives to bigotry no sanction – to persecution no assistance,” as he put it in a letter to a Jewish congregation in Connecticut. In a letter to prominent Roman Catholics, also a persecuted sect at the time, he expressed the ambition that “As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow, that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community are equally entitled to the protection of civil Government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality.”
And many years later, with his health failing after long service to his country as soldier and statesman, Washington announced his final departure from public life. In his famed Farewell Address, he tried to warn his fellow Americans of the dangers that he foresaw, including the danger that political parties could become “potent engines … by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Standing at the site of his inauguration more than 200 years later, gazing up at the heroic Washington, I’d say that we have so far done pretty well in heeding his warning and in making real his ambitions for his country that “all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the Community” are entitled to its protection. But it’s also true that those are challenges that every American generation must face anew, and it would take just one monumental failure to put it all at risk.