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First in heart
Washington's principled stand

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Date published: 2/22/2013

HE WAS BORN right down the road, in Westmoreland County, on this date in 1732. He grew up just across the river from Fredericksburg, at Ferry Farm in Stafford County. But George Washington's reputation expanded well beyond this fair region, and he remains among history's most admired men. One act especially can be seen as the centerpiece of that legacy--a principled stand today's national leaders would do well to emulate.

It was a courageous thing in 1776 for the American colonies to declare their independence and go up against a superpower like Great Britain. But they were, in fact, the inheritors of British principles of law and government. Less than 100 years had passed since the Glorious Revolution had overthrown King James II, ending for good the idea of absolute monarchy in England. So the colonists, including Washington, felt justified in rebelling against what they saw as the tyranny of King George III. There was no guarantee of the outcome; Washington and signers of the Declaration were indeed pledging their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" for the cause of American independence.

Washington led the Continental Army against the Brits and eventually prevailed. At two critical junctures in the war, in 1776 and again in 1777 (when a British advance forced the Continental Congress to flee Philadelphia), he was given powers over not just the army, but also civil society. He relinquished them as soon as possible. For Washington, the goal was not personal power, but a republican government.

The ultimate exercise of Washington's principled stand came at the war's end. At that time, as James Flexner points out in "Washington, the Indispensable Man," the idea of a modern people governing themselves was unknown. At best, political philosophers surmised that such a scheme might work for a short time on a small scale.

With conflicting political strains in the new nation, the temptation was to stabilize under a single ruler--Washington. One of his colonels suggested he become king. Alexander Hamilton pointed with alarm to unrest in the army. Unpaid soldiers, angry at a feckless Congress, threatened a coup. Should Washington take control?

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