Presidential reflections and the voice of George Washington
By Sophie Heinsohn
Sophie and the first president at Mount Vernon. Image provided by the author.
As we are nearing Presidents’ Day, it is befitting to honor those men who have served in the highest office of our country, and who have protected the principles of this great nation. Four of these men were born in February, which is actually not the most populous month for presidential birthdays. That title would fall to the latter months of the year, with October and November each having six (POTUS.com). Among those who do have February birthdays are George Washington, William Henry Harrison, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. When researching this article, it was my wish to find some great decision or masterful policy of William Henry Harrison, because his service was both short and oft-forgotten. Alas, my discovery was that there is a reason it is oft-forgotten. Suffice to say, his honor lies among being born in the same month as some of the presidential greats. Of the other three, each both made and were part of monumental decisions during their presidencies. It is on this note that we talk about the one who visited Charleston, George Washington.
Although I am going rather far back in time to find a president who has impacted me, I believe George Washington is the most fitting, because he set the precedent for presidents. Also, it is really his birthday that we celebrate on Presidents’ Day. As our first president, Washington exemplified what we should expect from our presidents and our government. The decisions he made taught us about democratic-republicanism, patriotism and Americanism. George Washington also visited two places I have lived or worked: Charleston, of course, and Annapolis, Maryland — and each of these places he visited for good reason.
First was Charleston. From the beginning of his presidency to the end, George Washington believed that the colonies of this young and vulnerable nation needed each other to survive. The South Carolina Historical Society writes that his purpose during the Southern visit was to unify the colonies. George Washington was committed to the United States and to her success. It was through decisions like choosing to go to Charleston and the other Southern colonies that he helped to prepare and encourage America to be the thriving nation that she is today.
Annapolis was second, at least chronologically — it is not for this author to say where they ranked in his heart. We just passed the anniversary of his visit there, when he resigned his commission from the army. On December 23, 1791, he gave a speech as part of his resignation, the words of which show the patriotism that fueled the decision: “Happy in the confirmation of our Independence and Sovereignty, and pleased with the opportunity afforded the United States of becoming a respectable Nation, I resign with satisfaction the Appointment I accepted with diffidence” (Maryland State Assembly). If not for his decision to resign, America would not be the free nation she is today, and you and I would not have the liberty, honor and duty that come from being citizens of this great and tyranny-free nation. Imagine what would have happened if we’ had a new King George? America would not be the emblem of liberty she is today.
Both of these trips exemplify George Washington’s understanding of the American principles that would make her a great nation, and the actions to help forward those principles tangibly. These trips were made up of many decisions that still uniquely impact us today as Americans. These decisions helped to form the foundation of expectations that the American people would have about their government and their leaders, while also providing the fundamental principles and actions on which this nation could be built.
On a more personal level, I also see George Washington as an example of one of the greatest statesman this nation has ever known (if not the greatest) and someone I would like to emulate in my own endeavors to protect the principles and freedoms of this great nation. As another February-born president, Ronald Reagan, said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. It has to be fought for and defended by each generation” (Reagan Foundation). George Washington made many decisions as our first president that ensured his generation was not the generation that would lose freedom. These decisions make me personally grateful, as they have impacted how I can live as an American and how I act as an American, so that future generations may also enjoy what makes America great.
George Washington in his farewell address was still fighting for the young nation and its principles and hopes for her that he still held dear. In his farewell address he urged unity, just as he had striven for unity from early on in his presidency with his famous trip to South Carolina.
The presidents born in February can be numbered among some of the best and most influential. Each of them gave contributions that were unique to who they were, but what was unanimous among them was the spirit of patriotism and the desire to see a better and freer America. Though it is difficult to speak to the contribution of William Henry Harrison, it is less difficult to find a good quote or principle from Abraham Lincoln. Like Washington, Lincoln was concerned with division ruining the county, but another important principle of his was gratitude. We can thank him for Thanksgiving Day, and it is that spirit of gratitude that leads me to my final thoughts of this article.
As I reflect on President Washington and the decisions he made, I find myself having a renewed perspective on how grateful I am to be an American, and a gratefulness for the decision that first made and then enabled and ensured the America I live in today. Sometimes, a president from approximately 230 years ago seems far away and insignificant to my here and now, but George Washington was instrumental in making my here and now.
It helps me see also the impact of our decision. Particularly as a government major in (if I may say so) these trying political times of division and vitriolic action, I am renewed with hope for the impact that even one person can have with a message of unity and humility in the bearing of that message. So this Presidents’ Day, I will be thankful for those who have preserved freedom and hopeful for our continued thriving as a nation as we humbly honor those who have made us the United States, and do out of duty to preserve and honor their legacy.
Hailing from Charleston originally, Sophie Heinsohn has lived up and down the Eastern Seaboard, which fostered an interest in history and its present-day cultural implications. With a bachelor’s degree in government from Liberty University, Sophie is now pursuing a master’s in writing and looks forward to merging these passions in the future.