Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Washington's Legacy

"Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of action; and bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take any leave of all the employments of public life."

With that conclusion to his address to Congress on this day in 1783, George Washington placed an exclamation point on the concept of democratic freedom that had been the cause for which he and his army had fought for the better part of the previous decade. The American revolution against the king of England could very well have resulted in the installation of a king of America. There were many who would have supported Washington had he ridden his popularity into the halls of Congress and declared supremacy over that ineffective and unpopular body. There was ample historical precedent for just such an action, and precious little example in history of what Washington did instead. That he relinquished the power given him by Congress, at the conclusion of a peace treaty with Great Britain, is perhaps Washington's single most impactful action in his celebrated life, and established the American precedent of conquering heroes returning, not to seize national power, but to relinquish that power back to the people.

To be sure, there have been war-winning generals who subsequently became president--Washington himself, Jackson, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower. But, they allowed the people to make that determination through the democratic mechanisms provided for in our Constitution. And they (Washington excluded, predating), having sworn as American soldiers to "support and defend the constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..." were true to their word, even out of uniform.

Those who would water-down the power and mystique of our Constitution with liberal interpretations of its contents, making it an amorphous "living" document changeable to the whims of current societal norms, risk setting precedent that would expose our nation to the liberal interpretation of a popular American warrior whose personal ambition could drive him to seize power in order to defend the Constitution against domestic enemies.

There's a fine, popular line between freedom and tyranny. A strict interpretation of the United States' Constitution keeps that line bright and visible.
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