another birthday but no sales today

readers of a certain age, unite!
Recalling that last weekend’s extravaganza of furniture, auto and General Miscellaneous sales was premised on the birthday observances of Presidents, today is the actual birthday of an actual president. Not just any President, of course, but Numero Uno.

George Washington, February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799.

or was it Feb 11, 1731?
First digression: he would have celebrated his first 20 or so birthdays as February 11, under the old (Julian) calendar. Britain adopted the new (Gregorian) calendar effective 1752, dropping 11 days to catch up with the sun and using January 1 to start a new year (rather late to the party, in fact). Wild stuff. Explained succinctly by Slate’s Explainer in 2006. (Not everyone ‘updated’ their birthdays, but Washington and Franklin did.)

Had we kept Feb 11 as the observance for Washington, perhaps Congress would not have been so tempted to tamper with the calendar to create the moving sales event "Presidents Day", as Lincoln was Feb 12 (as I noted then, actual birthday of a President, February 12, 1809)….

a (belated) farewell to his people
The story goes that Washington was talked into standing for election to his second term by Jefferson, Adams and others, but that in anticipating that he would retire he wrote an address in 1792. When he resolved to actually retire after his second term, he revised and updated that address as an open letter to the American people.

It is said to be a critical document in American history, but I don’t think I had ever read it before today. (Like most people I assume, I was much more familiar with the brief but emotional Fraunces Tavern farewell to his officers from 1783.)

1796 was a a challenging year for the new nation, with the selection of the second president in the offing, a still-tenuous knitting together of the newly united states, and the beginning of national political parties. Oh … and essentially global war between Britain and France.

the grand experiment continues
One thing that strikes me on reading the 1796 farewell is the strong sense that the nation was very much still an experiment, that might still fail, for any of a host of reasons. Read the whole thing and ponder that, if you have ten or fifteen minutes to share with El Numero Uno.

That comes through a bit in this section [6], which is also remarkable to me for the resonance of what is called (in other work that I do) ‘servant-leadership’:

In looking forward to the moment, which is intended to terminate the career of my public life, my feelings do not permit me to suspend the deep acknowledgment of that debt of gratitude, which I owe to my beloved country for the many honors it has conferred upon me; still more for the steadfast confidence with which it has supported me; and for the opportunities I have thence enjoyed of manifesting my inviolable attachment, by services faithful and persevering, though in usefulness unequal to my zeal. If benefits have resulted to our country from these services, let it always be remembered to your praise, and as an instructive example in our annals, that under circumstances in which the passions, agitated in every direction, were liable to mislead, amidst appearances sometimes dubious, vicissitudes of fortune often discouraging, in situations in which not infrequently want of success has countenanced the spirit of criticism, the constancy of your support was the essential prop of the efforts, and a guarantee of the plans by which they were effected. Profoundly penetrated with this idea, I shall carry it with me to my grave, as a strong incitement to unceasing vows that Heaven may continue to you the choicest tokens of its beneficence; that your union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained; that its administration in every department may be stamped with wisdom and virtue; than, in fine, the happiness of the people of these States, under the auspices of liberty, may be made complete, by so careful a preservation and so prudent a use of this blessing, as will acquire to them the glory of recommending it to the applause, the affection, and adoption of every nation, which is yet a stranger to it.

This passage [16] is a celebration and warning about the fragile national compact, lately having replaced Articles of Confederation with a Constitution:

To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a Government for the whole is indispensable. No alliances, however strict, between the parts can be an adequate substitute; they must inevitably experience the infractions and interruptions, which all alliances in all times have experienced. Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a Constitution of Government better calculated than your former for an intimate Union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns. This Government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.

The Father of his country, indeed! Blessings be upon him on his birthday!


© Sandy Mattingly 2010



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