WASHINGTON – Washington, DC in many ways is America’s Shrine. The main public buildings, the Capitol, the White House and then the Memorials erected to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, are solemn reminders of America’s origins and meaning. The first modern republic, a noble experiment created to test this simple proposition: “Are men capable of self-government?”
The first modern republic
At a time in which Europe was led by Kings who governed under the assumption that God gave them the right to do so, the Founding Fathers created institutions based on the assumption that all individuals have “inalienable” God given rights. In order to live together as a society, free people would delegate some of those powers to elected representatives whose primary duty was and is the protection of individual liberties.
Imagine that. At the end of the XVIII century this was truly revolutionary. Well, right now I am not sure of the answer about America’s ability to have a functioning self-government. These days Washington offers a sorry spectacle of a rudderless democracy where the people representing the key institutions seem to have lost any understanding of what public service should be about.
A visit to Mount Vernon
Is there a remedy for this? I am not sure. But I can say that at least for me going to Mount Vernon, the place where George Washington lived and died, (only a short ride from the Nation’s Capital), is a beautiful and inspiring experience.
There one can relive the atmosphere of America’s beginnings. And what is most striking about Mount Vernon is its simplicity. Sure enough, it was the large estate of a well to do Virginia farmer. But any second rate aristocrat in XVIII century Europe had a much bigger and much more opulent home. Let alone the grandiose palaces of Kings and Emperors.
In Washington’s home, in his experience, I see decency, restraint, tolerance, pragmatism, and superior wisdom. In Washington’s decision to leave public office while he was under no obligation to do so I see humility and a profound understanding that no man should become overly attached to the powers of public office.
From his days as President Washington brought home only a few objects. Most intriguing for me is the armchair he used while in office, now on display at Mount Vernon. Simple and functional. Nothing fancy. And yet, and yet, think about it. This is where George Washington used to sit and think, and write and deliberate, for years. A simple object, so full of meaning.
But the real meaning of Washington’s life for me is in his tomb. A very simple crypt. There he is: General Washington and his wife Martha at his side. A raised sarcophagus for the President and an almost identical one for his wife. Beautiful; but extremely simple. And I can see all that from behind an equally simple iron gate. Only a terse inscription on a stone tablet above the entrance: “Within this Enclosure Rest the remains of Gen. l George Washington“. Nothing more.
And there he is. There, in that unadorned yet extremely dignified burial place, is the Man who, along with a few others, created America. They created it, they cared for it and nurtured it, and then they left the scene.
George Washington did not want a mausoleum for himself. Just a simple tomb. Much can be learnt by observing how this leading Founding Father lived and by realizing how he still speaks to us, even in death.