Most of us revel in the freedom to celebrate the Fourth of July by burning snakes, lighting a match to Roman candles and watching the rocket's red glare, munching on hot dogs, fried chicken, and potato salad. The reasons why are pushed to the back of memory. A birthday party, after all, is a birthday party. Nevertheless, in a season when it's the fashion to deconstruct the Founding Fathers, to consider their flaws and not their profundity, it's only charity to pass along illuminating stories that testify to the ways they did what they did to make it possible to change the things that from time to time ought to be changed.
Put aside whether young George Washington actually chopped down his father's favorite cherry tree. (He apparently didn't). But George the man did lead a remarkable group of young men to create an original constitution over four hot months in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787. Silent George sat in a chair (not a throne) and rarely said anything, letting the young men work things out. He imposed one singular rule that probably wouldn't work today. He told them that no scribblers would be allowed to watch the proceedings, because if every item under discussion made its way into the newspapers nothing would be settled. Keep your handwritten notes to yourselves, he warned.
When someone dropped his notes, and they found their way onto George's desk, Mr. Washington asked whether anyone wanted to claim them. No one did. He ran a tight ship with no leaks. That alone was reason enough to make him the first president of the barely united states.
John Adams, who followed him to the first office, stressed the need for a virtuous citizenry. (Talk about something that wouldn't fly today.) "Pure Religion or Austere Morals," he said, will keep the ship of state afloat. Rather than stress individual rights and individualism as the accepted modus vivendi, he preached that the common good depended on a communitarianism, civic participation through community groups. Alexis de Tocqueville saw this idea still rooted in American life when he visited America a half-century later, but such sentiment lives now only in nostalgia. Robert Putnam, author of "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital," observed only a decade ago that Americans increasingly bowl alone, evidence of the decline of community spirit.
It's our third president, however, whose reputation has suffered since he was elevated to Mount Rushmore. Although George Washington held slaves, too, he freed them on his death. Thomas Jefferson, who saw no virtue in thrift and enjoyed a love of English antiques and French wine, thought it impossible to free most of his slaves on his death, and he bequeathed mostly debt to his heirs. He understood the evil of men owning men, and was an emancipationist in theory, but couldn't or wouldn't find a way to right his own personal wrong. Observes historian Paul Johnson: " if Jefferson's principles were strong, his appetites were stronger."
If we can't quite forgive Jefferson this personal failing, we can thank him for the perfection of the first sentence in the Declaration of Independence, appealing to truths that are "self-evident," to be accepted and acted on by all, making possible all that would follow -- including the freeing of the slaves.
As Thomas Jefferson's reputation has declined, George Washington's has ascended. The first president is no longer considered the aloof patrician or the man with funny wooden teeth (which were actually carved from hippopotamus tusks). Contemporary scholars cite Washington's character and principles as the foundation on which the republic was founded.
He maintained order and decorum at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, never wavering in his belief that most men are guided by selfishness and require a government to keep appetites in check. To expect ordinary men and women to be influenced by any principles other than self-interest, he said, "is to look for what never did and I fear never will happen."
He could agree with the sentiments of James Madison as expressed in Federalist 51: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In forming a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Just so. Happy Birthday, America the Beautiful.