Before George Washington’s birthday was hijacked and replaced with a generic “Presidents Day,” February 22 was a day to celebrate the father of our country.
Because Washington refused to become king and instead opted to humbly serve his country as its first elected president, the observance of his birthday is really a celebration of our Constitution and the entire republican system of governance upon which our nation depends. In that sense, Presidents Day is truly a day to recognize that we are a republic, not a monarchy.
In a revolutionary break from the rest of the 18th-century political world, the newly crafted Constitution vested the president with executive authority to faithfully execute the laws, not craft the laws. When contrasting the power of a king with that of a president, Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist #69 that “the one [a president] can confer no privileges whatever; the other [a king] can make denizens of aliens, noblemen of commoners; can erect corporations with all the rights incident to corporate bodies.”
How far we have fallen that we now have a president who confers all sorts of privileges, including “making denizens of aliens,” the very example of legislative authority Hamilton promised the people of New York would not be vested in the office of chief executive.
Although the power of the presidency was not to have any semblance of the power of the king, our Founders still felt that the faithful execution of the laws was a grave task that should only be vested in one man and in a man of faith. In defending the decision by the Constitutional Convention to vest the executive authority in one man instead of a tribunal, the great James Wilson said the following during debate at the Pennsylvania Ratification Convention:
“He cannot act improperly, and hide either his negligence or inattention; he cannot roll upon any other person the weight of his criminality; no appointment can take place without his nomination; and he is responsible for every nomination he makes.”
Hamilton in Federalist #70 explained the need for a one-man executive as such:
It is evident from these considerations, that the plurality of the Executive tends to deprive the people of the two greatest securities they can have for the faithful exercise of any delegated power, first, the restraints of public opinion, which lose their efficacy, as well on account of the division of the censure attendant on bad measures among a number, as on account of the uncertainty on whom it ought to fall; and, second, the opportunity of discovering with facility and clearness the misconduct of the persons they trust, in order either to their removal from office or to their actual punishment in cases which admit of it.
However, the Founders never envisioned two problems: the creation of political parties and the decline of religion and virtue among our civil society.
Political parties have rendered our separation of powers and checks and balances moot. The legislature can no longer properly check a lawless executive because it is most often composed of enough party loyalists who will operate in tandem with the president instead of as a separate body of government.
Moreover, we have lost a sense of how important religious virtue is for both the president and the people as a whole. The man we celebrate at this time of year, our very first president, devoted the largest share of his farewell address to the importance of religion and virtue:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
When the president no longer believes religion is needed to maintain morality and when much of the society agrees with that view, there is nothing keeping the most powerful man in the country from acting despotically. But thankfully, for all of us, the one president who could have been a king was guided by the religious virtues to place the interests of the republic over his own power or ambition. Nobody expressed the importance of George Washington better than Calvin Coolidge during a 1927 speech honoring our first president:
His was the directing spirit without which there would have been no independence, no Union, no Constitution, and no Republic. His ways were the ways of truth. He built for eternity. His influence grows. His stature increases with the increasing years. In wisdom of action, in purity of character, he stands alone. We can not yet estimate him. We can only indicate our reverence for him and thank the Divine Providence which sent him to serve and inspire his fellow men.
We can only hope and pray that in 339 days our society is virtuous enough to elect a president who is endowed with a fraction of Washington’s religious virtue and guiding principles.
Daniel Horowitz is a senior editor of Conservative Review. Follow him on Twitter @RMConservative.