A visit to Colonial Williamsburg always restores my faith in the wisdom of our founding fathers and their faith in the American experiment of democracy. They would be alarmed, if not sadly disappointed by the current state of our democratic government.
As George Washington approached the end of his presidency and public service in 1797, the historical interpreter portrayed a man anxious to return to his Mt. Vernon, Virginia home and concerned about “factions.” He bemoaned the emergence of political parties and geographical parochialism. Also, he warned against passion in foreign affairs, fearful that fondness for, or hatred of, a foreign power were unwise motivations for intervention.
Ever practical, Washington was a firm proponent of a strong federal government, one that had inherent mechanisms for balance of power, such as the executive and legislative branches. He understood that political parties would be divisive, creating a corrosive element in our democracy.
Rather prescient, was he not?
Exhausted, if not disillusioned by the difficulties of serving as our nation’s first president, Mr. Washington said he wished he had declined the presidency. He yearned for an agrarian life on his northern Virginian plantation.
Having listened previously to the forthright, sometimes blunt Washington, I realized again that common sense and muted ambition characterized this gentleman. His colleagues spoke more elegantly than he, but not necessarily more wisely. He served his raucous country during the Revolutionary War. He then assumed leadership of our newly birthed nation when it required a resolute, pragmatic and sensible chief executive.
The contrast between Washington and a young James Madison, portrayed in 1782, was stark. One projected steadiness; he was smarter in the ways of the world than he was an intellectual giant. The other, eventually our fourth president, was a skilled writer and deep thinker.
He prided himself on tackling a blank piece of paper and filling it with influential ideas, as he did with the Federalist Papers.
A close friend and associate of Thomas Jefferson, Madison is credited with being the ‘Father of the Constitution’. His stage presence, as interpreted by one of Colonial Williamsburg’s superb cadre of actor-historians, depicted a young, energetic and intellectual member of Congress. He was supremely confident in his mental acuities.
Like Washington, Madison too opposed factions. He wondered, once the Revolutionary War ended, what, and who would be the young nation’s common enemy; he justifiably fretted about the bonds of unity in a country built on an idea. While acknowledging the power of individual options and fruitful disagreement, he seemed concerned about how the exchange of differing concepts would manifest itself.
I should stop here and collect my thoughts. Commentary about current events remains eerily similar after 250 years.
Madison placed his faith in logic and reason, not emotion and personality. The United States in 2023 reflects the consternation of Washington and Madison: factions, evident in both political parties, are seeding discord and division. No better example illustrates today’s disagreeable and disgusting behavior than the spectacle of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R, Ga.) screaming “liar” as President Biden delivered his State of the Union speech a week ago.
The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection, undertaken by extremists determined to block verification by Congress of the 2020 Presidential vote count, was a despicable act of factionalism propagated by misguided and violent election deniers, specifically members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers.
Refusal by segments of the Black community and conservative Republicans to accept scientific evidence supporting masking and anti-Covid vaccine points to distrust motivating many Americans, placing themselves and their families in danger of serious illness and death. Institutional trust is at a low, disturbing ebb across the political spectrum.
Our founders were extraordinary people who believed in freedom and liberty. They considered rule by a king antithetical to placing government in the hands of the people. They disdained authoritarian dominance whose only claim was hereditary prerogative.
Democracy, though messy and unruly at times, is preferable to royal or autocratic governance. The founders instinctively knew our experiment was precarious. The documents that they produced—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights—provide an inviolate definition of our shared values.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.