"What a triumph for our enemies . . . to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves."
Barack Obama in 2010? No, George Washington in 1786. The father of our country, whose birthday we celebrate this week, wrote those words before he decided to double down and risk everything once again to help write the Constitution for the United States of America.
It was not an easy sell to convince a battle-worn Washington to give up his much-desired retirement at his beloved Mount Vernon estate on the Potomac River in Virginia. But in 1787 unpaid soldiers seized a courthouse where Boston bankers tried to foreclose on their homes, and Congress was powerless to raise taxes for their wages (sound familiar?). The imploding Articles of Confederation, the first American constitution, left every state equal in their representation and in their refusal to pay up. The European powers circled the Atlantic seaboard like vultures, and France sent separate ambassadors to each of the thirteen states.
Washington knew what was at stake. If England retook her colonies, through military or diplomatic might, he would become the greatest has-been general in history. You can hear the refrain: "Hey George Washington, you've just beaten the greatest military power on earth. Now what are you going to do?" George: "I'm going to hide under my covers at Mount Vernon until they come back." Thank goodness he didn't.
Instead, Washington chose to risk his most prized possession, his reputation, to return to Philadelphia and try once more to secure true independence. The delegates to the constitutional convention, as it later became known, gathered in the very same room where eleven years earlier Thomas Jefferson and others had pledged their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" to defy the king of England. And now England was looming over them again. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution was born as much from failure as from success. Its every page was stitched with compromise.
Yet you wouldn't know that from today's political debate. At the recent Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference, Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota claimed "the Constitution is on our side." At the same time, a newer group called Conservative Action Project (CAP), led by former Reagan attorney general Ed Meese and staffed by a lobbyist who worked for Jack Abramoff, issued a "Mount Vernon Statement" that argued for the principles of "constitutional conservatism," as though the true meaning of the Constitution belongs to conservatives. The statement was issued from one of the former "five farms" of Washington's Mount Vernon estate, in an attempt to lend it credence.
Well, I happen to live on one of those five farms of Mount Vernon myself (along with thousands of other Virginia suburbanites), about a mile from George Washington's front door. As a constitutional scholar I can tell you that Washington would be turning over in his grave at such language. He sacrificed everything, for the second time and late in life, to write a Constitution to bring Americans together, not tear them apart.
Washington included the fiercely opposed Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in his first cabinet. Just as Jefferson advocated a strict construction of the Constitution to prevent a return to monarchy, Hamilton supported a loose construction to prevent a return to chaos. Chief Justice John Marshall believed that Americans would always be arguing about this fundamental tension in our government because it was hard-wired into our Constitution.
Washington's farewell address warned of "the baneful effects of the spirit of party." According to his view, the Constitution belongs to everybody or nobody -- conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats. It is our fundamental charter that has survived longer than any other written national constitution in the world. It has outlived presidents and parties and, to the astonishment of Jefferson, the founders themselves.
At a time when our nation is suffering from serial crises, within and without, that challenge the very existence of self-government, the Constitution must be a blueprint for action not a political football. In the end the framers were above all pragmatists who sought to solve the problems facing the country. As that great philosopher Larry the Cable Guy would say: Git-R-Done!
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