George Washington’s Endangered Legacy

Obelisk, Luxor

Obelisk, Luxor

Washington’s Obelisk

In Washington DC, on the National Mall, a statue of Thomas Jefferson stands tall – intellectual and thoughtful – in the center of the Jefferson Memorial, while a fatherly Abraham Lincoln peers down at us, exuding the wisdom of Solomon, in the Lincoln Memorial.

But nearby, the Washington Monument is a lonely obelisk, pointing upward, toward the sun, rising some 555 feet into the heavens. Unlike our tributes to Jefferson and Lincoln, the Washington Monument contains neither statue nor pillars of adornment. It is a simple structure, providing no obvious visual message regarding George Washington.

But then, Gary Wills begins his classic Cincinnatus – George Washington and the Enlightenment, “Washington eludes us, even in the city named for him.”

So an obelisk, a muted, symbolic prod for our memories about the greatness of our Revolution’s General and our first President may be just right. The obelisk is an ancient Egyptian creation, intended as an atonement with the sun god Ra. During the reign of the Pharaoh Akhenaten, the obelisk was worshiped as a petrified ray from Aten, the sun disk. Akhenaten deified the sun god as the giver of all life and the Egyptians one true god. From time to time, historians have attributed Akhenaten’s idea that there is but one god to influencing Moses’s formative years in Egypt.

As preachers and historians struggled to define George Washington’s legacy as soldier and statesman, it is little wonder that they likened him to Moses, who led the Israeli tribes to their “Promised Land.” But, ultimately, the scribes realized the analogy didn’t fit. Washington’s authority wasn’t given to him on tablets passed down from a high mountain, but from an assembled body of his countrymen in Philadelphia, and ultimately, from the citizens of our country. And unlike Moses, who never entered his Promised Land, Washington lived his entire life in Virginia, where he began.

Washington Monument (WikipediA)

Washington Monument (WikipediA)


Cincinnatus, the ancient Roman, not Moses. That’s who Mason Locke Weems, an Anglican priest who wrote a biography about Washington in 1800, likened to the virtues of Washington, and his analogy was quickly adopted.

Born in 519 BC, Cincinnatus, a retired statesman, was working his small farm when he was called upon to lead Rome against its waring neighbors, the Aequi. The Roman Senate appointed him dictator. Cincinnatus quickly assembled his army and personally led them into the frey, winning the war in two weeks at the Battle of Mons Aligidus. When the crisis was over, Cincinnatus promptly resigned his commission and, unassumingly, returned to his farm.

Once power is seized, it is rarely voluntarily relinquished. But Cincinnatus was a hero, and became a legend, a model of civic virtue – a symbol of service for the greater good – because of the power he readily and voluntarily gave up.

Like Cincinnatus, after winning our Revolution against England, Washington could have been our pharaoh or our king. His charisma was that strong; his leadership skills, his presence, that powerful. It is no wonder that one of his soldiers wrote home after a terrifying battle, “Never have I seen such a man!”

The power that could have been Washington’s – and the course Machiavelli, had he been his advisor, would have urged him to take – was not on his agenda.

Washington heard Cincinnatus’s drum beat, which he expressed to the New York legislature:

“When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen.”

And to Congress in response to its thanking him for not abusing the unlimited power he had been delegated:

“Instead of thinking myself freed from all civil obligations by this mark of confidence, I shall constantly bear in mind that as the sword is the last resort for the preservation of our liberties, so it ought to be the first to be laid aside when those liberties are firmly established.”

After the Revolution, Washington resigned his command at the first opportunity, sworn to never again hold public office. However, in 1789, he relented to return to public service as our first President. After two terms, in which many of our government’s precedents used today were established, he again retired setting a precedent that ultimately became a Constitutional Amendment limiting the Presidential terms to two.

Wills writes of a story about a conversation with King George III during the Revolutionary War. The King asked Benjamin West what he thought Washington would do if he prevailed in the war. West answered that Washington would return to his farm. The King replied:

“If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Farewell Address

Washington’s 32-page, handwritten, Farewell Address, widely published in newspapers near the end of his second term as President, was not addressed to the Congress, nor to his cabinet nor the army, nor to any political party. It was addressed to his “Fellow Citizens,” for Washington never forgot it was the people of our great country that he served. Washington intended to resign after his first term, but Hamilton and Jefferson urged him to serve a second term out of fear that without his leadership, in face of the growing political factions, our nation might not survive.

By the end of his second term, Washington felt our nation was on course. But he remained concerned about political factions and a patriotic citizenry. In his Farewell Address, Washington urged all citizens to place their identities as Americans above all local interests and beyond the differences that separated them in religion, manner, habits and political principles. The continuance of the union, Washington reasoned, should be the “primary object of patriotic desire.” He wrote:

“Is there a doubt whether a common government can embrace so large a sphere? Let experience solve it.”

Washington continued:

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dispensations, which, in different ages and countries, has perpetuated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. . . . The disorders and miseries, which result, incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later, the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation on the ruins of public liberty.”

Since 1862, the Senate has had the tradition of reading Washington’s Farewell Address on Washington’s birthday, in February of each year. In 2015, North Dakota’s John Hoeven, a Republican, had the honors.

I wonder if Hoeven, or any of his colleagues, were listening or gave serious thought, to what concerned Washington. It is, after all, as Thoreau observed, not what we look at that matters, it’s what we see. Similarly, it is not what we hear that matters, it’s what we listen to.

Our Children’s Trust: Tales from Two Cities

Washington, DC:

Our last blog, “Meet 21 Gutsy Kids Who Make Me Proud – and a little humble and embarrassed!,” is a story about a lawsuit brought by 21 kids to assert their rights to a healthy environment. Although the lawsuit is filed in Oregon, it’s against our Federal Government, seated in Washington, DC, created and named in honor of George Washington.

On November 16, 2015, the American Lawyer’s article, Sidley Squares Off Against Youth Activists in Climate Suite, reported that the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers filed a motion to intervene, seeking to dismiss the lawsuit filed by the 21 gutsy kids, claiming that the lawsuit improperly sought to have the federal courts fill an executive or legislative function reserved to the President and various administrative agencies and to Congress.

The fundamental theory underlying the lawsuit is the “Public Trust Doctrine,” based on the idea that our environmental essentials, such as air and water, are held in trust by our government for the unimpeded use of all peoples. The theory is explored in depth in Nature’s Trust, written in 2013 by Oregon law professor Mary Woods. The doctrine has its roots in ancient Roman law and English common law, and more recently, the writings of the late Joseph Sax, then a Michigan law professor. In 1970, Professor Sax pointed out in his Defending the Environment:

“The striking fact [is that our American law provides] … a basis for resolving disputes among neighboring private property owners, under the rubric of the law of nuisance it has not been carried over to protect those important public interests which are not ordinarily the subjects of private ownership – such as ambient air, water … and all the other resources which comprise the repositories of environmental quality.” (p.159)

Sax clarifies that there are legal protection remedies available through our government’s administrative agencies, but:

“[T]here is no legal protection enforceable as a right by a citizen in his capacity as a member of the public.” (p. 160)

Enforceable rights by citizens are what the Public Trust Doctrine champions, and that is what the motion to dismiss filed by National Association of Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel & Petroleum Manufacturers objects to, claiming that the remedies for wronging our environment are the exclusive prerogatives of our executive branch and its administrative agencies and our Congress. If the motion prevails, then regulation will be exclusively between the regulated and the government regulators. The 21 gutsy kids will have no practical, direct way to protect our air and water and the rest of our environment for themselves and their future generations. But the influence of the regulated industries and their lobbies will continue unimpeded.

Sax points out:

“We are a strange people. Though committed to the idea of democracy, as private citizens we have withdrawn from the governmental process and sent in our place a surrogate to implement the public interest. This substitute – the administrative agency – stands between the people and those whose daily business is devouring of natural environments for private gain.” (p. xvii).

It’s the “stands between” that is the problem for too many of us, particularly since we have shifted from a Democracy of People to a Democracy of Dollars – with the result that the voice of Congress and our government has become far more responsive to the contributors of dollars to the political process and their lobbyists than to today’s descendants of the “Fellow Citizens” for whom George Washington felt so responsible and dedicated his lifetime of military and political service.

In the 2014 national election, a mere 36.4% of our citizens voted, which means that the fate and direction of our country has been determined by a mere 18.3% of us. And that 18.3% appears to be dominated by the Democracy of Dollars. In reflection, the poor voter participation could well reflect the feelings of disgust and hopelessness of much of our citizenry in today’s dollar-dominated political process; but it also reflects the results of an education system that has grown more dedicated to raising us as well-educated consumers than raising us as well-educated, responsible citizens.

Check out the Texas Tech poll of its politically challenged college students:

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As troubling as the lack of knowledgeable participation by today’s descendants of Washington’s “Fellow Citizens” in the processes of our government is for us – and would be to George Washington and the rest of our Founders, who understood the importance of an enlightened, participative citizenry – there is another issue that would be even more unsettling to Washington:

It’s the fact that the regulatory process is decided by an interplay between the regulated and the regulator resulting in what Sax calls the “insider perspective,” (Sax, p. 82), skewing and compromising the process by political influence from the regulated with little input from us, the intended beneficiaries of the process. Sax warns that the regulatory (and we add the legislative) process “has supplanted the citizen as a participant to such an extent that its panoply of legal strictures actually forbid members of the public from participating even in the complicated process whereby the regulators and the regulated work out the destiny of our air, water, and land resources. The citizen who seeks to intervene in an administrative proceeding or to bring a complaint before the judiciary s shunted aside. . . .” (p. xvii)

Today, far too frequently:

• Legislation is shaped by the political influence of money to the detriment of the citizens our legislators have been sworn to their offices to represent.
• Political appointees who serve as members of our regulatory agencies come from the industries regulated, and return to the regulated industries when their term of government “service” is complete.
• Personnel employed as regulatory agency staff members ultimately end up employed by the regulated companies or their lobbies.

The legacy of Washington as our own Cincinnatus is not on the minds of our legislators or regulators, despite the reading his farewell address in the Senate on his birthday each year. Sax argues:

“The ancient notion of public trust, of which every citizen is a beneficiary, must be revived and adapted to contemporary problems. . . . Regulation in the name of public interest can no longer remain a two-party enterprise carried on between the regulated and the professional regulator.” (p. xix)

Until then, the legacy of George Washington, our own Cincinnatus, remains hidden, lifeless in the walls of the unadorned, simple obelisk we built to honor the man King George III once called the “greatest man in the world.”

Olympia, Washington

There are 26 cities, nine universities and colleges, five mountains, four forts and a dozen or so parks and bridges named after George Washington. Cincinnati was named in his honor as the American Cincinnatus. But there is only one state named Washington. Our next story is grounded in its capital, the seat of its state government.

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

Olympic Peninsula, Washington

On November 19, 2015, Judge Hollis R. Hill issued what Our Children’s Trust reports is a “groundbreaking ruling in the unprecedented case of eight youth partitioners who requested that the Washington Department of Ecology write a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come.”

During the course of the proceedings, the Governor of Washington ordered the rule making sought by the eight children, negating the need for the court to order the Department of Ecology to do so. However, the Court was clear on several important points, including the application of the Public Trust Doctrine:

• “In fact, as the Petitioners assert and this court finds, their very survival depend upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively, and unequivocally, to stem this tide of global warming….”
• The responsibility of the Department of Ecology is shaped by the Federal Clean Air Act as will as the Washington State Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine.
• Washington’s enabling legislation states: “[I]t is a fundamental and alienable right of the people of the State of Washington to live in a healthful and pleasant environment.”

Concerned youths, guided by Our Children’s Trust, have filed law suits in nearly every state directed toward requiring state governments to engage in positive action to protect the quality of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the environment we share with all other life for future generations. The “findings” of Judge Hollis and the positive actions of Washington’s Governor will serve as precedent.


Which brings me to my final point: George Washington’s concerns about factions – about the contentiousness between the “me genes” touting special or regional interests and the “we genes” needed to preserve the blessings of national liberty, harmony, and well being. Certainly, reading Washington’s Farewell Address in our fractured and contentious Senate each year hasn’t helped. Will precedents from the state named after Washington also be ignored by the rest of our country?

Colin Woodard’s 2011 study, American Nations, A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America, offers more challenge than simple hope. Woodard places the State of Washington in the “West Coast” Nation of our 11 nations, identifying it as “the birthplace of the modern environmental movement,” with a strong “commitment to individual self-exploration and discovery, a combination that has proven to be fecund.” (p. 11)

But there are ten other nations squeezed into North America (only one, First Nation, is not in the United States), each with its own sets of values, beliefs and tribalism, which, contrary to Washington’s advice, are rarely compromised or set aside – particularly in these times when we have become a Democracy of Dollars and 18.3% of eligible voters determine the direction of our country. Woodard warns that our nation will not survive if we don’t “respect the fundamental tents of our unlikely union.” He continues, as if expanding on the writings of Professor Sax:

“We won’t hold together if presidents appoint political ideologues to the Justice Department or the Supreme Court of the United States or if party loyalists try to win elections by trying to stop people from voting rather than winning them over with their ideas.” (p. 318)

And we won’t preserve clean air, unpolluted waters, and a healthy environment as long as the only conversation is the insider conversation between the regulated and the regulators, too often political appointees reflecting the industries regulated.

We have a court finding and a precedent about our environment and the responsibility of a state government to abide by the Public Trust Doctrine for the benefit of all citizens. But it comes from the sliver of a nation that is a part of our country Woodard calls the West Coast Nation. The factions from the rest of the nations comprising the United States have a lot of coming together to do for all of our offspring to enjoy a healthy environment. And we have to clean up the regulatory process as Sax and Woodard point out, giving rights to our citizens to have an effective word in the result. For that to occur, along with the lessons from Professor Sax and Woodard, we need to take seriously Washington’s concerns, expressed more than 200 years ago, urging all citizens to place their identities as Americans above special and local interests and beyond the differences that separates them in religion, manner, habits and political principles. That means getting back to a Democracy of People – of concerned, participating citizens – and turning away from today’s Democracy of Dollars.


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3 Comments on "George Washington’s Endangered Legacy"

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Once again, you have presented a strong, well-documented, and beautifully written essay. One would hope your words will reach responsive ears.

Hi Dick! I t’s been almost 6 years since our trip to Tierra del Fuego and Kaap Hoorn (I like the real Dutch name!!!). This article on G.W. was very good, but history has shown us that REPUBLICS DO NOT WORK!!! Unfortunately. If G.W. were animated and surrounded by a magnet, he’d be a dynamo, and he’d be spinning in his grave fast enough to provide electricity for the whole East Coast!!! (To clarify, that’s the original 13 states, plus Florida!!!) I am, and will always remain, a monarchist. I hope you had a nice Thanksgiving, and will have a… Read more »

As always, Dick, you have something important to pass along. Well done. Hopefully many will get to read and heed your words.