Celebrating George’s Wisdom, Humility, and Breakfast Habits

I can, indeed, be a horrible creature of habit, both for better and for worse. One of the better aspects of my dedication to certain routines and interests is how I start out almost every day of my life. After I wake, I wander downstairs to the freezer from where I retrieve a chocolate bar and break off a small piece and consume it. Chocolate is, without question, something of an addiction and in the interest of not ballooning my weight to an unhealthy level, on most days I limit myself to just this one piece. Some days, if there’s a bit of chocolate lying around, I might be tempted to indulge a second (or third) time, but I try not to.

My wife is a connoisseur of trivia—especially if it relates to science fiction or fantasy literature, à la Tolkien—and it’s simply remarkable how many odd bits of knowledge she carries around in her head. She’s also, despite being a third grade teacher, the best medical diagnostician I’ve come across, but that’s a whole other story. Anyway, one of her “retained pearls” that she shared was that George Washington, too, liked to start his day with chocolate at breakfast.

With today being President’s Day, I wanted to reflect a bit on our first president as some of his wisdoms seem to me to be especially relevant to our times.

But, first, we need to quickly get breakfast out of the way. George did have chocolate with breakfast on many mornings, but without the availability of refrigeration he could not enjoy it frozen, as I prefer it, at least not in the warm months. Instead, in the 18th century, people tended to consume chocolate as part of a drink, essentially like hot chocolate. The chocolate was grated and added to a hot liquid, most often water or milk. George purchased chocolate right up until the time of his death. A man of good taste!

I found myself thinking about George a couple of weeks ago as I had been thinking about political parties and our truly divided times. My recollection had been that the Founding Fathers did not hold parties in a positive light. The Constitution does not mention them at all. So, I did some reading to clarify and inform my understanding.

The omission in the Constitution was not an oversight—the Fathers knew of political parties very well. In fact, their omission was quite deliberate as the founders saw parties as both emerging out of and then feeding back into factionalism. Factions within any population naturally cause divisions; The formation of political parties, they believed, would simply exacerbate and solidify the differences amongst the people which would lead to, at best, unproductive conflict and, at worst, the loss of the new republic.

Nonetheless, it did not take long for political parties to emerge in the young United States. Ironically, they emerged from two of our most prominent leaders, both of whom spoke of parties with great suspicion and both of whom preferred that American democracy be a vehicle for the coming together of all peoples. The principles of Thomas Jefferson formed the basis of the Democratic-Republic Party and those of Alexander Hamilton provided the foundation of the Federalist Party. Both played important roles in the formation of these parties. Yet, the former—a man of often startling contradictions—was once quoted as saying, “If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.” The latter said, “Nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties.”

George Washington had strong feelings against parties and, in fact, his family’s emigration from England was precipitated by their desire to avoid the civil wars that had erupted there during that century. He clearly saw divisions growing in his young country and directly addressed factionalism and partisanship in his farewell address to the nation.

As I understand Washington’s viewpoints, his ultimate interest in opposing political parties was their potential for undermining the natural rights of ordinary people. In other words, when a group of people join together to further their political agendas, there is a grave potential that should they amass enough power to become dominant, they will use their power to subvert the rights of those who are not part of the group. He, and other founders, cite their fear of how factionalism can lead to despotism, which itself can become entrenched and formalized within a system of governance. Washington declared that runaway factionalism would ultimately lead to formalized systems built around the installation of a single individual to rule. And all-powerful rulers, as well-intentioned as they may start out, seem to ultimately become despots.

Washington’s warnings are remarkably applicable to today. Remarkably.

Remember Lincoln’s primary interest as he presided during the Civil War. He talked endlessly about “preserving the Union” and stated that this was his primary concern in pursuing the war between the states. He was willing to compromise on virtually anything except for this. But, why preserve the Union? He tells us absolutely perfectly in the Gettysburg Address. Simply, his interest was ”that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

We take for granted why our country is so special in human history. We are an ongoing experiment that seeks to address the interest of free people being able to live together and decide collectively for themselves, how they are to be governed. When governance fails to come from the consent of the governed, it invariably devolves into the loss of individual rights and the loss of natural freedoms for the governed.

The past century and a half have shown us that we not only live together and govern ourselves, but that when we come together as one, it has enormous benefits for us both in terms of individual freedoms and our economic well-being. If one were to posit that Jefferson’s primary interest was protecting the rights of the individual while Hamilton was focused on the strength derived from national unity, one could reasonably conclude that Washington was the most wise of all of them. His belief was overwhelmingly that we were much stronger together than we ever could be were we divided.

Division is, sadly, on the rise globally. Personally, I think our division is the result of the dissolution of trust amongst people. Furthermore, I think the dissolution of trust follows a long period of time during which we’ve simply forgotten and/or abandoned our collective responsibility to treat each other decently.

I have long had faith a significant majority of the people, given access to truthful and dependable information, would come to a general consensus with regard to the right way to proceed. But, over decades during which our institutions have regularly failed us, who do we trust to deal with us honestly and fairly? The advent of unbelievably extreme consolidation of our media—both in terms of traditional and the new “social” media—creates opportunities for the singular voices of aspiring despots to divide us using outright lies, innuendoes, and half-truths. Technology has now given those wishing to control us more potential means and greater reach to do so than at any time in human history.

So, what are we to do? First of all, we need to be alert to the threat. We need to remember that the interests of most people are remarkably similar and the great masses of regular folk have immeasurably more in common with each other than they do with the people possessing great power—which is a tiny portion of the total population—regardless of whether that power is political or economic.

Second, we need to realize that those wishing to control us can only do so when we fail to work together. As such, their tool of choice is division and they achieve this by attempting to convince us that we do not share a lot in common with our neighbors across the street and around the world. Again, we share much more in common with each other than not.

Finally, knowing that people with power will seek to control us (for their own benefit) and knowing how they will attempt to do so (division), we need to be engaged in a constant and vigilant effort to verify and validate the stories we are told and to never believe a story until we have truly strong and compelling reasons to lend our trust to what we are being told.

And, we must remember that trust should be loaned and never given. We will all find at different points in our lives that we’ve mistakenly extended trust to someone or something not worthy of that trust. When that happens, we all have the right, and maybe the responsibility to others, to revoke the trust we have granted.

As Ronald Reagan put it, albeit in a different context, “Trust, but verify.”

Washington was uniquely trusted. Since his presidency, we have not so unanimously trusted any of our presidents. He himself, despite his uniqueness, never felt himself qualified to lead the country. And, that humility is probably his greatest gift to all of us. He realized that the country is bigger than any individual and, as such, each leader should not only be constrained by balancing powers, but should give way to a new leader in what is a relatively short amount of time. Furthermore, while they had their differences with our first president, both Jefferson and Hamilton trusted that Washington would govern in such a way that the country would avoid falling into the deadly trap of despotism.

Their interests were just as ours should be today. As we choose our leaders and our affiliations, we need to recognize that for almost 250 years we have come from every corner of the world with personal beliefs and successfully and prosperously lived together. As Barack Obama observed, we are not, nor have we ever been or are likely to be, “perfect.” But, we have over our history become “more perfect” over time. No people has ever lived under the rule of a despot and enjoyed as much opportunity to chart our course towards “more perfect” than have we. It’s not us or them, it’s just us, and it’s time that we again started to work together for the betterment of all of us.