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George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman
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George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman
Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

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


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, it'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 General 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'd asked his men to fight for a republic. 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 amassed, no bands played, there's no statue or plaque to mark the spot this month on President's Day, but it was as momentous a decision as any president -any ruler - has ever made.

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SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

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