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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman

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The people of Egypt won a revolution by being brave, peaceful and persistent. The business of building a democracy will probably be less sensational, tweeted and televised. But of course, that's even more important. This time of year especially, Americans might remember some of the ways in which we made a democracy.

The American Revolution triumphed with Gen. George Washington's victory at Yorktown in 1781. Throughout history, a lot of conquering heroes — Caesar, Bonaparte, Castro and Mugabe — have used great victories to seize power.

But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon and farmed.

He was drafted to return to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Founders had sharp differences over how to balance the rights of states in a strong federal government that could stand against British, French and Spanish imperial ambitions. But they all trusted Washington as the most balanced of men.

As historian Joseph Ellis wrote, "Franklin was wiser than Washington, Hamilton was more brilliant, Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated, Adams was more engaging … Madison was more politically astute, but Washington was still the greatest. And they would all agree to that."

The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first president of the United States. He ran for a second term, reluctantly, in 1792. And then, in 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a powerful, popular leader: He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term and returned to farming.

There were people who believed that only a strong, longtime authoritarian ruler could keep a country stable in a risky world governed by emperors, kings and czars. They felt the United States deserved no less.

But Washington remembered that he had asked his men to fight for a republic. And when he stepped down, he put his young country's future into the hands of every man with a vote.

We've seen many countries rise up and hold free elections, only long enough for a charismatic, autocratic ruler to win them and hold on to power, like Hosni Mubarak did for so long, like a man afraid to let go of the throat of a snake.
We all know that democracy can be messy, corrupt and disappointing. But every few years an event like the revolution in Egypt reminds us why people are willing to struggle and die for it.

George Washington could have been a king. He decided to be a citizen. No crowds massed. No bands played. There is no statue or plaque to mark the spot this month on Presidents Day. But it was as momentous a decision as any president — any ruler — has ever made.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small