Paul Greenberg: Washington emerges: Across the river and into history

BY PAUL GREENBERG Published: February 22, 2013
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They did. The result of their labors would be what a British statesman of some note, William Ewart Gladstone, would call “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man” — the Constitution of the United States.

Washington would preside over the birth of that remarkable and still living charter that orders our liberty. His presence at the head of the constitutional convention gave it a moral authority no one else could have supplied.

At the heart of this new Constitution there was envisioned a singular office: president. There can be no doubt about the provenance of a strong, unitary American presidency. It was modeled after, inspired by, and designed for just one man: George Washington. It is an office created in his image.

The wartime hero managed to keep the peace with the two greatest, and warring, powers of his day, Great Britain and France — no mean feat. The victorious general would also prove a prudent and farseeing statesman. In critical period after critical period.

When it came time to lay down the burdens of office, and return at last to the private life so long denied him, Washington would leave his country a final gift: his farewell address. In it, he foresaw the dangers of the divisive passions which could imperil “that very liberty which you so highly prize.” His words remain as relevant now as when he uttered them in farewell.

First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen, Washington was also first in daring and in wisdom, in judgment and execution, which is why Americans still need to heed his counsel.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES