As I sat home on President’s Day, reading an essay on Washington’s Farewell Address, I was struck by a comment King George III reportedly made. In the closing days of the Revolution a decade earlier, it was widely believed Washington could easily have made himself king. Instead, after serving a self-imposed limit of two terms as President of the young nation, Washington simply retired to his farm. “If he does that,” King George said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” Such is the legacy of our first president, like the one of Abraham Lincoln, an equally great American whose life was tragically cut short far too soon in an act of divisive sectarian madness. Presidents Day, which is aptly nestled between the birthdays of our two greatest leaders, is a time to reflect on who we are as a nation and what their legacies can still teach us.
However, my reflection on the man from Mount Vernon was abruptly rattled when I took a break and scrolled through my social media apps. On Presidents Day, in a shocking display of crass opportunism and inflammatory rhetoric, the GOP’s Georgia representative, Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted “We need a national divorce. We need to separate by red states and blue states.” That an elected member of Congress could, on a day celebrating Washington and Lincoln, actually make a public call for secession, as opposed to unity and reconciliation, is simply beyond the pale, even in these times. Of course, the real tragedy is not that Greene said it. The deeper concern is that we live in a time when Greene can say something so troubling and get away with it.
Granted, there was head shaking and calls for her resignation, but it didn’t come from the right people. While current party leaders took a pass, it was former Wyoming representative Liz Cheney who responded, “Our country is governed by the Constitution. You swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution. Secession is unconstitutional. No member of Congress should advocate secession, Marjorie.” How sad that Greene still sits in Congress, serving on committees like Homeland Security, while a smart, classy stateswoman like Cheney loses her seat. Granted, Cheney is persona non grata to many Republicans these days, evidence of deepening divide not just in the country, but in the GOP. That’s sad commentary on how far we’ve fallen from the big tent days of Ronald Reagan, and how far removed we are from the legacy of noble leaders like Washington and Lincoln.
Like Memorial Day, Labor Day, and Independence Day, the national holiday in February celebrating the presidents should remind us of the commonalities that unite a shared citizenship. Washington’s farewell still has much to teach us, perhaps now more than ever. For example, Representative Greene might consider reading Washington’s letter to the nation “emphasizing the necessity of ‘an indissoluble Union of States under one Federal Head,’ stressing the importance of overcoming ‘local prejudices and policies.’” Later, Washington warned Americans against the inherent danger of political parties, hoping policy disagreements would never divide the nation into “red and blue states.” We are, or should be, stronger and more resolute than any political issue.
Regarding the natural inclination to align ourselves by factions, Washington advised “Your union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty,” and “… the love of one ought to endear you to the preservation of the other.” Granted, the existence of parties and organizations is not inherently bad, and historians generally believe they are a structure for balancing dissent within the system. However, partisanship, sectarianism, and “local prejudices” are corrosive and unnecessary. Our connections as human beings should supersede our identifications with arbitrary associations. Living in Greenwood Village shouldn’t negate a sense of community with Centennial residents. Being a Cherry Creek Bruin shouldn’t keep us from camaraderie with Smoky Hill Buffaloes. Voting for Democrats shouldn’t alienate us from others who checked the Republican box.
In a recent Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan looked back at Jimmy Carter’s historic “Crisis of Confidence,” noting how valid and insightful the speech actually was. On news of the former president’s entry into hospice, Noonan reflected on the inherent goodness of his leadership. She reminds us how he ended with this advice: “Whenever you have a chance, say something good about our country.” Great advice from a great man. And he lived it every day of his virtuous life.
Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. You can email him at email@example.com