The crowd was angry. The people were rumbling that something had been stolen from them—something to which they had a right. They had put their faith in the promise of a democratic government and their representatives. They would defend the noble cause of self-government against an elite which was blind to their plight. The time to demand justice was slipping away. They turned to their leader. He was over six feet tall and was one of the most recognizable men in America. Towering over other men in both height and reputation, he seemed like a great man who would vindicate their claims to justice.
This is a tale of the worst of times and of the best of times. One tale from a winter of despair and another from a spring of hope.
On January 6, 2021 just as Congress was scheduled to meet to count and certify the votes of the Electoral College, President Donald Trump — a tall man who, because of his wealth and media savvy, had cast a shadow on American culture for decades – stood before a crowd outside the White House in Washington, D.C. Four years before, Trump won the presidency by appealing to Americans’ suspicion of elites and now, as his presidency was coming to an end after a failed re-election bid, he stirred the crowd’s passionate indignation by telling his supporters that the election had been stolen.
He encouraged them to march on Congress to demand the restoration of our democracy before it was too late. The subsequent scenes of protestors forcibly entering our legislative halls and vandalizing the seat of our democracy are now familiar to all. An ancient fear that a tyrant might emerge out of a democracy, exploit the people’s passions, and aggravate their sense of grievance became a pressing twenty-first century concern as Americans despaired that their proud tradition of the peaceful transition of power might come to an end 234 years after our first president, George Washington, left office.
The tale need not end in despair. We can turn back the page to March 15, 1783, early spring in Newburgh, NY and, metaphorically, in the history of democratic government in the United States. The Revolutionary War was all but concluded with a peace treaty on the near horizon. The victorious, but beleaguered, Continental soldiers and their officers were anxious to receive the pay and the pensions promised to them by the Continental Congress. If Congress could not pay them before it signed the peace treaty and disbanded the army, the soldiers might never again have the opportunity to press their claims.
In that spring of 1783, an anonymous letter circulated through the military’s ranks at Newburgh. Purportedly written by a “a fellow soldier” and one “whose past sufferings have been as great…as yours,” the letter cast suspicions upon the Continental Congress; it had neither the ability nor the intention to pay the soldiers. “Faith has its limits,” the author insisted, “as well as temper; and there are points beyond which neither can be stretched, without sinking into cowardice, or plunging into credulity.”
The, now-infamous, Newburgh letter urged the soldiery to demand their just due. They had just secured victory against the British Empire, the world’s foremost military power. They stood at the apogee of both their moral and physical strength. Now was their moment, the letter argued, before the swords were “taken from your sides,” leaving them with no “mark of military distinction left, but your wants, infirmities, and scars!” Those whose spirits revolted at the notion of being left abject beggars and the objects of ridicule and scorn would “assume a bolder tone,” would “awake” to the injustice they faced, and “oppose tyranny, under whatever garb it may assume.”
The Newburg letter circulated to General George Washington. Like President Trump Washington stood over six feet tall and loomed large in the American imagination. Washington had got wind of similar plans almost a year earlier. In May 1782, Washington received a letter from Colonel Lewis Nicola, inviting him into a mounting conspiracy against the Congress and intimating that Washington could be crowned monarch of the new United States. Any human being, motivated as we all sometimes are by self-interest and ambition, might easily have been tempted. Washington responded unequivocally. “I am much at a loss to conceive what part of my conduct could have given encouragement to an address which to me seems big with the greatest mischiefs that can befall my County. If I am not deceived in the knowledge of myself, you could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable.”
Washington understood better than the Newburgh conspirators that martial strength secured independence, but republican government would require moral fortitude. Self-government would require a tempering of the passions and an adherence to the rational design of political institutions. A year later, standing before the assembled officers at Newburgh, Washington educated the soldiers in democratic self-government. Unlike aristocratic regimes, the nascent democracy relied on citizens to volunteer to serve in the army. Therefore, soldiers all had – as all citizens do – a claim to equality. Rather than allowing his soldiers to indulge base passions, Washington elevated his men.
The soldiers’ pleas to him were “addressed more to the feelings of passion,” he told them, “than to the reason & judgment.” In his address at Newburgh, Washington never denied the soldier’s right to their demands for pay and pensions. He asked instead that the soldiers seek redress in a manner that was “consistent with your own honor, and the dignity of the Army.” And, just to make sure that the soldiers understood, Washington reminded them of his honorable conduct, suggesting parallels to their own service. “I have never left your side one moment when called from you on public duty. As I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distress, and not among the last to feel, and acknowledge your Merits.” Washington went on to observe that his personal reputation and ambition were tied to the broader institution of the military, just as it should be for any volunteer solider in a democratic regime. “I have ever considered my own Military reputation as inseparably connected with that of the Army,” he declared, and, because his personal reputation was inseparable from that of the institution, Washington pledged himself to defend the integrity of it rather than seek to gratify his ambition in other ways. Though his fellow soldiers had sought to hoist him onto a pedestal and crown him with the laurels of tyranny, Washington, despite his fame and stature, subsumed individual interest back into the institutional mechanisms of democratic governance and the commonweal.
Washington asked his soldiers to do the same. “Let me entreat you, gentlemen,” Washington urged, “not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity & sully the glory” not only of their current cause but also of their past victories on behalf of the new nation’s democratic project. Honorable men would have to submit to the slow deliberations of their representatives in Congress, who weighed their just claims and balanced them with the interests of others. “Like all other large bodies, where there is a variety of different interest to reconcile, their deliberations are slow… why then should we distrust them?”
This past week, amid the fiery rhetoric and violence, Vice-President Mike Pence recognized these same lessons. President Trump, like the Newburgh conspirators, had repeatedly insisted Vice-President Pence might be his own personal savior figure. Trump had something in common with the Newburgh conspirators and with his own supporters. All believed that a single individual was the key to the crisis. Rallying with his supporters on the Ellipse, just south of the White House and only a short while before some of those same supporters breeched and then ransacked the Capitol Building, President Trump called upon Pence to “stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” adding, “if you’re not I’m gonna be very disappointed in you.”
In this, our most recent Newburghian moment, it was Vice-President Pence who best echoed Washington’s faith in reason and in the institutional structures that the framers built to help us channel the energies of passion away from the dangerous and slippery slope of demagoguery. “Our Founders were deeply skeptical of concentrations of power and created a Republic based on separation of powers and checks and balances under the Constitution of the United States,” Pence wrote in the statement he delivered just as the Joint Session of Congress convened to certify the Electoral College results. “Vesting the Vice President with unilateral authority to decide presidential contests would be entirely antithetical to that design,” Pence rightly concluded.
Our republic will never be saved by just one man – neither president nor, in Mr. Trump’s case, vice-president. That is not the system our founders built. We will not be saved by passion either. Institutions. Reason. Those are the cornerstones of American democracy. Those were the seeds of optimism that Washington offered to the new nation in that springtime of hope in 1783. In what seems to be a winter of despair here in early 2021, they can be the seeds of hope still.
Modeling equality in a democratic republic required of Washington something Mr. Trump has always seemed to be unable to muster – the ability to subordinate the individual and the self to the institutional. Equality requires humility. To elevate his men above their mere passions, Washington had to diminish himself. That is the great irony, perhaps, of what transpired at Newburgh. Washington sits enshrined in our national pantheon of heroes. Parson Weems’ fables paint a picture of a man whose physical and moral example the rest of us cannot hope to aspire to. But, that is not what Washington aimed for that spring day at Newburgh. Indeed, it is quite the opposite. If we have forgotten that, then, we as a nation need to refocus.
After he finished addressing the gathered crowd at Newburgh, Washington opened a letter from a member of the Congress that he intended to read to the soldiers. But, Washington was 51 years old that day at Newburgh, and his eyesight was not what it once had been. Washington could not see, and so he fumbled in his pockets to find his reading glasses.
A Virginia planter who served in the Continental Congress, Washington might easily have shared the Congress’ blindness to the conditions of the soldiers before him. As a soldier, he might also have shared his compatriots’ blindness to the exigencies that the Congress faced as it sought to finish the war, conclude a peace treaty, and establish a new national government. This was a scene that seemed to demand sharper focus. Washington knew that.
As he drew out his glasses, he looked out at the soldiers and uttered a now famous sentence: “Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” After he finished reading the letter, after he removed his glasses and put them back into his pocket, the crowd stood silent. Passions had ebbed. No longer was anyone willing to overthrow the Congress in an act of self-interest. As Washington had served, so too had the assembled soldiers – for the same cause and to the same ends. Like Washington, the once angry soldiers would put their trust in the Congress and the rational, albeit slow, democratic process.
Such is the outcome when we choose to refocus. Washington saw this.