Transition of power: Greatness meets infamy
America’s greatness is not defined by the acquisition of power, but the surrendering of it.
“We can now add Jan.6, 2021, to that very short list of dates in American history that will live forever in infamy,” later expounded Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). Former President Barack Obama called it “a moment of great dishonor and shame for our nation.” This will be remembered as one of the darkest moments in American history and it unfolded in front of a painting of the greatest moment in American history.
On Dec. 23, 1783, after successfully winning the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington surrendered his military commission to Congress. In this unprecedented act not seen since classical Rome, a victorious commander laid down his sword. The American general’s act was so shocking that upon learning of it, King George III of Britain could think of no other words than to declare Washington “the greatest man in the world.”
Washington could have been America’s monarch or dictator. But he preserved the Revolution’s ideals and firmly established a peaceful transition of power. Washington acted to ensure “the interests of our dearest country.” And America was defined.
Immortalized on canvas by artist John Trumbull, the image of this transfer of power has graced the U.S. Capitol’s Rotunda since 1826, before Wednesday’s mob desecrated its memory by gleefully posing with looted spoils in front of it.
This was not a lone moment in Washington’s career. Surrendering power was a selfless action he affirmed time and time again. First, by defusing a potential coup against Congress by his own officers during the Newburgh Conspiracy. He appealed to their honor.
“And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country — as you value your own sacred honor — as you respect the rights of humanity,” said General Washington, “…to express your utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country, and who wickedly attempts to open the flood gates of civil discord.”
Then again, as president, Washington renounced a third term (and potential lifetime appointment) in favor of a peaceful transition of power. In his Farewell Address, he warned against partisanship, which “serve[d] to organize faction” and make the nation subservient to “the will of a party.”
His example for a peaceful transition of power was followed by President John Adams and in every presidential election thereafter. Until this week.
Wednesday afternoon, President-Elect Joe Biden addressed the nation, reminding them that “America is about honor.” Biden is correct.
America has always been about honor. As the Declaration of Independence boldly proclaimed in 1776, “We mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
The founders viewed “sacred honor” as an ethical ideal, a secular religion, to uphold the nation above one’s self. Washington spoke on the importance of the nation throughout his military and political career. It is what has guided the peaceful transition of power ever since.
What transpired Wednesday was dishonorable. Washington would weep.
During Wednesday evening’s Congressional election certification session, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), harkening to the Declaration, proclaimed, “at this moment in history I can think of nothing more patriotic than renewing our faith in the charter of freedom that our founding fathers crafted for our republic.”
On Thursday morning, Trump finally confirmed “there will be an orderly transition on January 20th.” Washington’s precedent of the peaceful transition of power must never be challenged again — even in jest.
America needs to refocus itself on its founding ideals, and the first president’s most of all. Putting the nation above party loyalties and personal motivations. Peacefully surrendering power instead of trying to retain it. Washington’s selflessness defined us as a nation, and it can again. America, we can do better.
Craig Bruce Smith is a historian and the author of “American Honor: The Creation of the Nation’s Ideals during the Revolutionary Era.” Follow him on Twitter @craigbrucesmith. All views are the author’s and do not represent those of the federal government, the U.S. Army or Department of Defense.