SOUND OF DISTANT MUSIC

By Paul Greenberg
 
On this his birthday, George Washington remains the most admired but remote of American presidents, more portrait than person. He intended it that way.
 
Because like the other Founding Fathers, he was set on independence. First independence for himself, for from youth he was determined to make his mark. Then independence for his young country. He was successful at both endeavors. So successful he became a general, president and statesman in his own time, and remains a guiding spirit and mentor in ours if we would but study him.
 
To him, independence never meant indulgence. Quite the opposite. It meant certain qualities a struggling new republic would need in an age of monarchies: dignity, decorum and, yes, a proper distance from others.
 
The father of his country was very much aware of both the promise and the dangers all republics faced, and most had succumbed to. But this republic, his generation of Americans knew, could usher in a New Order of the Ages, just as it still says on the dollar bill.
 
Washington did not propose to fulfill so audacious an agenda by appearing audacious. He would be neither courtier nor demagogue. Rather, he proposed to conduct himself as a citizen of a republic. He would be the first citizen of the first republic to endure. No small ambition, for himself or for his country.
 
No one ever described George Washington as folksy. He dared not forget what he represented. He represented America and the American Idea–that liberty and authority, freedom and order, could go together. Yes, an audacious project.
 
To him, independence never meant indulgence. Quite the opposite. It meant certain qualities a struggling new republic would need in an age of monarchies: dignity, decorum and, yes, a proper distance from others.
 
The father of his country was very much aware of both the promise and the dangers all republics faced, and most had succumbed to. But this republic, his generation of Americans knew, could usher in a New Order of the Ages, just as it still says on the dollar bill.
 
Washington did not propose to fulfill so audacious an agenda by appearing audacious. He would be neither courtier nor demagogue. Rather, he proposed to conduct himself as a citizen of a republic. He would be the first citizen of the first republic to endure. No small ambition, for himself or for his country.
 
No one ever described George Washington as folksy. He dared not forget what he represented. He represented America and the American Idea–that liberty and authority, freedom and order, could go together. Yes, an audacious project.
 
At the end of the 18th century, such a notion was sufficient to inspire snickers from the tories of every nationality. Even if this colonial rabble managed to win a brief independence, they told one another, just imagine it trying to govern itself! What a joke.
 
There was reason, even necessity, for Washington’s reserve–for his insistence on the formalities and courtesies, on the dress sword, on the proper ceremonies and correct form of address. He had his and the republic’s dignity to think of, and at the time they were pretty much the same thing.
 
Washington set out to prove that a republic could do more than prevail in war–that it could prosper in peace. How did he manage it? How did he carry off this bold experiment as if it were a formal ritual? The clearest and most eloquent explanation may lie not in scholarly analyses, or in Washington’s own weighty prose, but in the music of his time:
 
Listen to Haydn and hear the contest between theme and counter-theme, the folk melodies that are given free play but not enough to overpower the final triumph of decorum.
 
Listen to Mozart and hear the stately minuet transformed into a free, lively rondo, then brought back to balance and moderation–after some of the most unlikely yet, once heard, most inevitable, natural, inescapable of progressions. Mystery is turned into symmetry, the most intriguing of chords resolved, with each note in its fated place, fixed as the stars and planets in the night sky, yet always moving. Like a new constellation of 13 stars.
 
General Washington would lead a revolution and quell the occasional mutiny.
 
He would prosecute a war for independence, and later declare neutrality for the same purpose.
 
He would preside over the creation of a new, highly complex and most uncertain constitutional scheme full of verbal artifice–without saying a word.
 
He would put down a serious insurrection (the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794) without making a single conciliatory gesture, and then pardon the guilty.
 
As president he would listen to the equal but opposite counsels of Messrs. Hamilton and Jefferson, each presenting his views forcefully and articulately, respectfully but aggressively, and then make his decision. Time and again. Then he would sincerely implore the adviser whose advice he regularly rejected, Mr. Jefferson, to remain in his cabinet.
 
It wasn’t that Washington tolerated a dissenting view; he welcomed it. The old general had conducted too many counsels of war not to know that every possibility and consequence should be considered before deciding on a course of action.
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Author: Alfred E. Neuman

70 year old geek, ultra-conservative patriot.