In March 1783 there was a major crisis. One that could unravel the hopes of a free country. The soldiers in the Continental Army were not happy. Throughout the war many of them fought bravely for their country, all the while not getting enough support from their government. Many of them fought without enough food to eat in soiled uniforms and worn out shoes. They fought anyway, hoping that eventually the continental government would keep their promises and pay them what they were owed. If not, many of the enlisted men would go home without so much as a loaf of bread to feed their starving family.
There was a cabal of soldiers who were threatening to take action. It was time to force the government to pay up or else. Some of them were hoping that their General would force the issue, through force if necessary. On March 15th, that General would speak to a group of officers and soldiers at an army encampment in Newburgh, New York. The cabal was hoping he would be on their side, but also willing to go against their General if necessary. Yes what they were calling for was abolition of their representative government, but so what? This was a crisis! Something needed to be done, even if that something was military dictatorship!
The General enters a small drafty new building where many of the officers are waiting to hear what he has to say. While he could have decided that enough was enough and declared himself ruler, he took a different route. Instead he says,
“Let me entreat you, gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, and sully the glory you have hitherto maintained; let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress.”
He then paused and took out his spectacles. This was a big deal as usually the General would never let his soldiers see him with glasses on. He then said.
“Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind.”
So moved by the General’s statements the cabal could no longer continue with their conspiracy against the government. The General would also soon resign his commission. At a time when he could have grabbed more power for himself, he chose to do the direct opposite. That General was George Washington.
Today President Trump declared a National Emergency to get funding for his promised border wall. All day I’ve been hearing arguments from conservatives that this was the right thing to do because there really is a crisis at the border. “Congress isn’t acting so extraordinary measures need to be taken!” So the argument goes. They say the Democrats have already betrayed the Constitution so who cares if Trump is now setting a bad precedent. This is a crisis and desperate times call for desperate measures! They’re basically saying that we have to go against the principles of limited government to save the country. Washington would disagree.
I agree that there is a real problem on the border. The numbers seeking asylum are growing exponentially, the opioid epidemic is real, and our immigration system is broken. But imagine if Washington took that same approach in 1783. There was a legitimate crisis that needed action, so he would be justified in taking control of the Congress. But Washington knew that for a free country to work he had to step down. For all its flaws, representative government was far better than military dictatorship. He not only remembered what they had fought against. He remembered what they had fought FOR.
What is the point in fighting for the Constitution if we will not abide by it ourselves? What is the point in believing in limited government when we are willing to push that belief aside when it becomes inconvenient? And how far are we willing to go? Some are arguing that declaring a national emergency is more practical right now. Actually what would be more practical would be Trump just declaring himself dictator. He’ll get unlimited wall funding that way right?
President Trump could have taken the high road. He could have educated the people on the flaws in the spending bill. He could have told the American people that Congress had failed them. He could have admitted that he failed to convince enough people that there is a crisis at the border and that he will work to show them the truth before the next election. Instead he grabbed more power for himself to win a political victory with his base. He should have known better. He should have learned from George Washington.