Washington Revisited

I remember being told in a philosophy class I took in college years ago that “wherever you go, you meet Plato on the way back.” I dutifully plowed through The Republic, but it wasn’t until years later, when I was reading Plato’s earlier works, the Apology, Crito and Phaedo, that I came to appreciate the truth of that quip.

I returned from a trip to Washington, D.C., over the holidays thinking something similar could be said about our first president: Wherever you go in this country, you’re never far from Washington.

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Washington of course has come to signify any number of things. There’s the man himself, the capital city named after him and the federal government, which synonym-seeking journalists often identify by the W word. Then there are the countless streets, squares and parks that bear the name of Washington. (I note that America magazine was born in 1909, auspiciously, on 32 Washington Square in New York.)

Given so many Washingtons scattered around the country, it’s oddly easy to forget the person they celebrate. Like the purloined letter, that which is readily apparent becomes invisible. Heroes have a tendency to morph into monuments—cold, stony and forgotten.

Washington and Thomas Jefferson became a little more real to me during my trip, in part because of a visit to Mount Vernon. The candle-lit tour I took of Washington’s home omitted some of the highlights I would have seen during the daytime: Washington’s tomb, the key to the Bastille his friend the Marquis de Lafayette sent him in 1790, the set of false teeth on display. (Washington suffered from bad teeth, only one of which survived into his presidency.)

I did learn about standards of hospitality, which were considerably more demanding then than they are now. Both before he became president and after he left office, George and Martha entertained constantly. About two days out of three they were at it. Some guests were strangers, travelers who needed a place to stay for the night. Others came expressly to see Washington. In 1798, they had 677 house-guests. That is a lot of visitors and impressed on me Washington’s self-restraint, graciousness and long-suffering nature. One guest stayed nine months; when he left, Washington noted his departure in his diary but refrained from further comment.

Jefferson was a more dicey character than Washington. He was a bit of a back-stabber, prone to writing attacks on Washington and getting others to sign their names to them. Washington understandably cooled toward his former secretary of state when he learned of this. Martha Washington counted as the two saddest days of her life the day her husband died and the day, a year later, on which Jefferson visited Mount Vernon.

Still, Jefferson was a great man, even if sometimes not a very good one. His personal library was the embryo of the Library of Congress, and to hear about his collection of 6,487 volumes encompassing art, architecture, literature, science, geography and almost every branch of knowledge is to realize what a superb mind he had. My brother-in-law opined there wasn’t much to see at the Library of Congress apart from the reading room. He is a lawyer, alternately laconic or litigious, and it is rare that one has the pleasure of catching him so flamboyantly wrong. The original library is the most splendid public building I’ve ever seen in this country. If there’s a better one, I’d like to know so I can visit it.

I came home feeling better about Washington in all its multiple dimensions. Congress is a wreck-in-progress, but the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian are first-rate; the capital looked grand; and I left feeling indebted to the founding fathers. They had their troubles too, and what a good thing it would be if we read more about them—sobering, yet possibly reassuring.

History is schooling for philosophy, a cure for both despair and easy optimism. Our best leaders often lived in the worst of times and experienced travails that far dwarf today’s. The vices of democracy have not changed. The dangers Washington cited in his farewell address to the nation remain: false patriotism, the despotism of political parties, threats to the checks and balances of government, alliances with foreign countries that will blind the nation to its best interest. All apply to the issues we face now.

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