In the spring of 1775, a deeply ambivalent George Washington watched anxiously from his Virginia estate as the political world he knew began to unravel. When New England’s minutemen fired their first shots at Lexington, he shared their determination to resist intolerable British rule. Yet a profound fear of anarchy contended with his desire for liberty.
For Washington, the unfolding crisis presented an awful choice: the terrifying disorder of revolution or the stability of despotism. “The once happy and peaceful plains of America are either to be drenched with blood, or inhabited by slaves,” he wrote to a friend that spring. “Sad alternative!”
Today, Americans viewing the scenes of revolution across the Middle East may share some of Washington's ambivalence. We cheer those Arab voices articulating many of the same ideals that roused our Founding Fathers as they fight for a future of greater dignity and freedom. And yet we are anxious because we know from history that revolutions can often spin out of control, leading to chaos and civil war. Dictators or extremist groups often seize power, pervert the original revolutionary ideals and impose new brands of tyranny.
As Americans celebrate the anniversary of Washington’s birth amid the thrilling and unsettling news from Egypt and the region, we can appreciate in a fresh way the role that Washington played in our own nation’s struggle for democracy. His achievements also shed light on the road ahead in the Middle East. For a revolution to succeed -- whether in Egypt or America -- without devolving into either anarchy or despotism, it needs leaders like Washington who can balance the inherent human desires for both liberty and stability, and harness revolutionary energies while also holding them in check.
Washington’s career – as military hero, as chairman of the Constitutional Convention, and as our first president – was characterized by a constant effort to strike such a balance. His most recent biographer, Ron Chernow, describes Washington aptly as a “conservative revolutionary.” Well into middle age, he strove to succeed within the British colonial system. He was deeply invested – politically, financially, philosophically – in maintaining order.
It was these very qualities that made the Continental Congress feel safe in placing him at the head of an army of unruly rebels. Decades later, when John Adams sat down to enumerate the ten qualities that had launched Washington to preeminence, he listed among them the Virginian’s “great self-command” and “gift of silence.” Hardly the attributes of a radical.
The Continental Congress chose wisely. Throughout the revolution, Washington would win few battles, make no fiery speeches and pen no great works of political theory. Yet he would justly win more credit for its success than any other American.
The American Revolution began with scenes of mayhem in some of the colonies: Tories lynched, shops and houses looted. Washington imposed discipline on the army and exerted command firmly but fairly. While British commanders tried to foment slave revolts and Indian attacks, his own restraint and dignity soon made Americans – even lukewarm supporters of the rebellion – associate him with authority and the rule of law. Amid the fear and uncertainty, he became a fixed point around whom people could rally.
After the war, it was Washington’s presence at the Constitutional Convention that let Americans overcome their fear and suspicion of centralized government and acquiesce to the new federal system. And when he accepted the presidency two years later, his living example of presidential self-restraint institutionalized the system of checks and balances to ensure we would never be subject to a new dictatorship. He instilled confidence in his fellow Americans that both order and freedom could live in harmony; indeed, that they could reinforce and advance each other.
Just as important, Washington’s stature and dignity assured the rest of the world – even European monarchies – that they could accept the nascent republic without endorsing revolutionary anarchy. “All of North America, from Boston to Charleston, is like one great book of which every page sings his praise,” one French aristocrat enthused. Without such faith in America’s new leader, it is unlikely that foreign powers would have given their support.
More than two centuries later, there are plenty of recent examples of the difference a single individual can make in inspiring confidence and encouraging stability as a nation undergoes a revolutionary transition. Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa come immediately to mind. Few revolutionary movements are lucky enough to get leaders of this quality – fewer still, a George Washington.
We cannot know yet whether one will arise out of the Middle East, where decades of corruption, economic stagnation and political repression have combined with a demographic youth bulge to form a convulsive mixture of anger, rage and humiliation. These hardly seem like promising ingredients.
Yet perhaps Washingtons are ultimately made, not born. Maybe one will emerge from the courageous throngs in Tahrir Square, from the young people on Facebook or even from the ranks of Egypt’s officer corps.
One thing is certain. If such a person exists, he must share the feelings of peril and uncertainty that Washington wrote in a letter to his brother as he departed to take the helm of the revolution: “I am imbarked on a wide ocean, boundless in its prospect, and from whence, perhaps, no safe harbour is to be found.”
Mitchell B. Reiss, director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department from 2003 to 2005, is now the president of Washington College, which was founded with a gift from its namesake in 1782.