While serving as commander-in-chief of the Continental Armies George Washington annually sent letters to the government of each of the several states. So Joseph J. Ellis tells us in his Pulitzer winner Founding Brothers. Particularly notable is the Circular Letter of 1783, wherein Washington offers a profound vision of America that I think is worth considering:
“The Citizens of America, placed in the most enviable condition, as the sole Lords and Proprietors of a vast Tract of Continent, comprehending all the various soils and climates of the World, and abounding with all the necessaries and conveniences of life, are now by the late satisfactory pacification, and acknowledged to be possessed of absolute freedom and Independency; They are from this period, to be considered as Actors on a most conspicuous Theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designed by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”
After wading through superfluous capitalization and strings of clauses laced together with no period in sight, I find the following meaning in Washington’s observation:
Now blessed with freedom from British rule, Americans were in the ultimate position to do what no man had comprehended prior. With unprecedented individual liberty afforded by a remarkable republican government and placed on a continent teeming with every imaginable natural resource, Americans had no excuse for not exhibiting human greatness and happiness. Indeed, given the extraordinary nature of this opportunity, it was only to be expected that the world’s eyes would be on the newly formed nation. The circumstances were such that it was as if God had created the moment for some specific reason, and we for whatever reason were the chosen for the event.
With privilege comes an equal measure of responsibility, and certainly if we look at Washington’s letter through that lense I think we find that rightly much has been expected of America and continues to be expected of us. It is incumbent upon us to strive to maintain our worthiness of what Washington described. Doubtful some may detect in all this a note of the American Exceptionalism which offends some contemporary observers. I contend that the unique facts of our nation’s genesis simply set the bar higher, and it is not arrogance that should arise from that outlook but rather the challenge of being the best we can be. Despite self-inflicted wounds that have shamed the vision, America remains the singular place with the least intrusion upon one’s ambition–one’s pursuit of happiness if you will.
If we should fail to be happy and prosperous, the fault is only ours, said Washington. Something to think about as we look at what has brought us to where we are today as a nation, and likewise as we look at where we are headed.
It was difficult to watch President Obama’s first addressing of the Congress without noticing the unbridled exuberance Nancy Pelosi exhibited throughout as she popped so energetically out of her chair at each applause line. In contrast, Joe Biden barely paid enough attention so as to know when to clap at all. In light of this memory, it seems appropriate to watch the montage again and have the same kind of laugh we have when we watch Howard Dean’s “I have a Scream” speech for the umpteenth time. Because something [like the fact that healthcare reform is in the ER] tells me Nancy may show more restraint this evening.
Imagine that, Obama the deficit hawk. In what appears to be a political move intended to appease deficit-weary politicos and the public alike, Obama is poised to announce a halt in non-security discretionary spending. Cutting spending and pushing through an aggressive legislative agenda simultaneously will prove to be quite the balancing act, but I suspect the employment of creative fiscal gymnastics by Team Obama will make matters easier.
We’ve hit some serious bumps in the road recently in our march toward change. We always knew it would be difficult, but this past week has definitely been a hard one, for all of us.
But this movement didn’t come so far without making it through some challenging times. It’s at moments like these when we need you most. People are hurting. Our country is at a crossroads, and in communities like yours all across America we must all fight for the progress our families and businesses need to thrive.
The President’s resolve has never been stronger to keep fighting for health insurance reform, for lasting job creation, and to rein in the big banks and fight the undue influence of lobbyists. Wednesday’s speech will be a pivotal moment for us all to get on the same page and continue the fight together.
In just two days, OFA supporters like you will be gathering at State of the Union Watch Parties in living rooms and community centers across the country. You can share ideas and experiences — and I’ll be joining on the phone for a special strategy huddle before the speech.
Find and RSVP for a State of the Union Watch Party near you:
P.S. — Volunteers have set up hundreds of Watch Parties over the last few days. But if there isn’t one yet near you, just sign up to host one yourself. It’s easy and fun, local OFA organizers will help you with any questions you have, and it’s an incredibly important way to let supporters near you be part of the action:
I’m not going to go into depth too far on this, as doing so would probably require writing a book. Regrettably I haven’t the time for that at the moment. Anyhow, I have been reading Joseph Ellis’ Pulitzer-winner Founding Brothers, which reviews some of the key conflicts that arose after the implementation of the Constitution. The conflicts stemmed primarily from ongoing disagreements about the role of the federal government. Sound familiar? The battle cries of today’s Tea Party movement come to mind, as do the boisterous arguments of the disciples of Ron Paul’s 2008 Campaign for Liberty. In Ellis’ book, he examines among other things how the Congress was at loggerheads in 1790 over the idea of the Federal government assuming the war debts of the states. Treasury Secretary Hamilton, a reasonably competent economist, recognized an urgent need to consolidate the national debt, get in good standing with the states’ debtors, nationalize the economy, and put the national debt to work. Anti-federalists, and the Southern states in general, saw this is a dastardly power-grab by the federal government. Virginia, for one, was apoplectic over the thought of the fact that assumption would leave it with a net loss–it would end up paying more for other states debts than it would hand over to the federal government. Furthermore, it directly challenged the independent Spirit of ’76. We fought the British to win freedom, they argued; not to have power centralized in a despotic federal government. The states were sovereign, not subservient to a central government.
And so the anti-federalist cry went then, and variations thereof were heard when other issues arose when the nation was in its infancy. According to Ellis, the assumption debate ended up being resolved behind closed doors through a deal wherein southern states gave in to assumption after securing the concession of some numerical voodoo regarding the debts and the establishing of the nation’s permanent capital in the south (in DC). As we can see, little has changed since then. Our debates over stimulus, healthcare, cap-and-trade, etc. occur along similar lines of division between competing schools of thought regarding the federal government’s role. It is highly illuminating to revisit the arguments of the early years of the United States not simply because they have so many similarities with our contemporary debates, but because they are simpler questions that are less removed from the core philosophies that drive the arguments. Getting down to the meat of those philosophies makes us I think better equipped to understand contemporary questions. Unfortunately, it seems as if the only people who take the time to understand the genesis of all this are academics and the hobbyists like myself–not the politicians and commentators who have a louder voice in the national debate.
I challenge you to go back to history and look at the debates going on then with regard to the role of government. Understand the core philosophies underlying these debates. The parallels with contemporary politics are fascinating. Big government was as big a concern then as it is now among conservatives. And the biggest problems of the days got solved back then in much the same way as they do now–not in open debate but with deals cut behind closed doors.