Where Are The Public Servants Today?
“About ten o’clock, I bade adieu to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity and, with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express, set out for New York…with the best dispositions to render service to my country in obedience to its call, but with less hope of answering its expectations.”
And with those words, George Washington became the only chief executive in American history to be elected unanimously by the electoral college (we have a two-step system of popular vote followed by the electoral college vote).
In America today, we’re celebrating George Washington on his birthday.
As expats, we travel the world and witness varied forms of government and social systems. Sometimes we feel safe and other times we are on the outside looking in, yet nearly trapped in a cycle of events we have no control over. It was like that for me when I was caught up in the protests over the presidential elections in Azerbaijan.
I got to thinking about what makes this so different today.
We look around and see the examples of the Ukraine and what we have witnessed with the recent Sochi Olympic Games. Compare the tenor of Washington’s words as a public servant and the unanimity of the vote to the strife we are seeing today in Ukraine and Russia.
Where are the pubic servants, the ones who actually have the best interests of the public at heart? Was it just easier for George Washington in America in the late 1700s, or is it so very different culturally in the former Soviet Union?
- By 1776, the 13 American colonies had been in existence for over 150 years.
- In the northern colonies, according to historical research, the top 10% of the population owned about 45% of the wealth.
- In some parts of the South, 10% owned 75% of the wealth.
- Unlike most other countries, America in 1776 had a thriving middle class. Well-to-do farmers shipped tons of corn and wheat and rice to the West Indies and Europe. Benjamin Franklin credited his shrewd wife, Deborah, with laying the foundation of their wealth with her tradeswoman’s skills. The western edge (the “frontier”) was still violent and unsettled, but in the established (civilized) cities of the east, life was stable.
Ukraine’s current struggles are based in the collapse of the moves to integrate with the EU vs. the desire of Russia to have greater influence.
- Ukraine is the largest country entirely in Europe and the second largest country in Europe after Russia. It was known as “the breadbasket of the Soviet Union” in reference to its desirable grain and agriculture productivity..
- During the 10th and 11th centuries, Ukraine was known as Kyivian Rus, and was the first East Slavic State, which was the most powerful nation in Europe at the time..
- The Great Northern War in the early 1700s divided Ukraine among regional powers once again. At the end of the 18th and much of the 19th centuries, most of Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire, and the rest was controlled by Austria-Hungary.
The United States and Ukraine share many similarities as far as development, power and sustainability. But what they do not share is leadership.
Each president, past and currently deposed has been complicit in some scheme involving Russia, either Tymoshenko’s Russian gas deal or Yanukovich’s abrupt change of plans toward the EU as the people had wanted. What seems to be missing in all of the current politics is a leader with the best interests of the populace in mind.
Thinking that perhaps in America, the time was calmer, or that Washington was given the authority he needed to navigate the uncharted waters, I looked into this question.
In his book, “Mr. President” author Harlow Giles Unger places Washington’s presidency in a time of continual crisis, as rebellion and attacks by foreign enemies threatened to destroy this new nation. Constantly weighing preservation of the Union against preservation of individual liberties and states’ rights, Washington assumed more power with each crisis. In a series of brilliant but unconstitutional maneuvers he forced Congress to cede control of the four pillars of executive power: war, finance, foreign affairs, and law enforcement.
When Washington assumed the presidency, he was faced with the ongoing challenge of the Northwest Indian War. The Indian Western Lakes Confederacy had been making raids in the Northwest Territory on both sides of the Ohio River and, in the years before Washington’s presidency, had grown increasingly dangerous. By the late 1780s, the United States had suffered over 1,500 casualties in ongoing hostilities.
This certainly sounds more like today’s leaders than I thought it would. So how did we survive and why did it work?
Looking closely at Washington’s attitudes, public service is a central aspect- really serving the public.
“Although it was his for the taking, Washington only reluctantly agreed to serve a second term of office as president and refused to run for a third, establishing the precedent of a maximum of two terms for a president. Over four decades of public service had left him exhausted physically, mentally, and financially. He happily handed the office to his successor, John Adams, then returned to Mount Vernon and resumed farming.
Washington closed his administration with a thoughtful farewell address. Washington’s Farewell Address (issued as a public letter in 1796) was one of the most influential statements of American political values. Drafted primarily by Washington himself, with help from Hamilton, it gives advice on the necessity and importance of national union, the value of the Constitution and the rule of law, the evils of political parties, and the proper virtues of a republican people. In the address, he called morality “a necessary spring of popular government.” He suggests that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington thus makes the point that the value of religion is for the benefit of society as a whole.
Washington warns against foreign influence in domestic affairs and American meddling in European affairs. He warns against bitter partisanship in domestic politics and called for men to move beyond partisanship and serve the common good. Specifically, he proclaims his deep distrust in political parties. He believed that they would open doors for unprincipled men to gain power. He called for an America wholly free of foreign attachments, as the United States must concentrate only on American interests. He counseled friendship and commerce with all nations, but warned against involvement in European wars and entering into long-term alliances.” (credit: wikipedia)
Maybe those are lessons that we could learn again today. I was fascinated to find that the time was not simpler, that there weren’t fewer challenges, and that the temptations weren’t any fewer.
I was gratified to find that the stories of Washington’s moral compass were supported by fact, and that he actually did a good job of setting the United States on a path of growth and strength while actively keeping the needs of the people at the forefront of decision-making.
This is a leader I can celebrate after all. Happy Birthday George! Rest peacefully- you earned it!
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-25182823 (Photo Credit Reuters)