America has become a profoundly–and tragically–ahistoric country. As such, the 273rd anniversary of the birth of George Washington will pass this Tuesday with little note. Washington’s legacy has been so disregarded by its heirs that his birthday has been stirred into the generic swill of “President’s Day,” an empty gesture that blunts the memories of both the first chief executive and the sixteenth, Abraham Lincoln, in order to avoid cluttering February with too many holidays or too much history.
The memory of Washington has become an inconvenience for men who occupy the high stations he and his fellow founders occupied. George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, John Negroponte and their ilk certainly do not want the work of remaking America in their own image–as a greedy, self-absorbed and frequently brutal empire–interrupted by reflections upon the nobler nation that Washington and his compatriots imagined.
Considering the ugly state to which the American experiment has degenerated, however, it would make sense for the rest of us to renew our affiliation with the first GW. Indeed, patriots need to call General Washington back into the service of his country–not merely as a clarification of national memory but as a blunt challenge to those who have usurped America’s promise with their illegal invasions and reckless misadventures.
It will not be the first time that the wrench of Washington’s memory has been tossed into the machinery of American empire.
When dissenters from the impulse toward American empire held their annual gatherings in cities and towns across the United States in the early years of the twentieth century, they would meet on the anniversary of George Washington’s birth. It was the accepted wisdom of the day that, in addition to having been “the father of his country,” Washington was, as well, the father of the anti-imperialist movement. The first president had given his ideological descendants ample evidence on which to base their claim. His 1793 proclamation of American neutrality in regards to European political and military conflicts explicitly rejected international entanglements, with Washington later explaining that, “The duty of holding a neutral conduct may be inferred, without anything more, from the obligation which justice and humanity impose on every nation, in cases in which it is free to act, to maintain inviolate the relations of peace and amity towards other nations.”
But it was Washington’s Farewell Address, delivered in 1796 toward the end of his second presidential term, that became a touchstone for ensuing generations of anti-imperialists. Washington used his last great statement to the nation he had shepherded through the struggle to loosen the grip of British colonial rule, “to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”