By: Sarah LeBlanc
The sky was cloudy and the day was rainy, but that didn’t take away from the sprawling spectacle that was Mount Vernon, the estate of America’s first president, George Washington.
It was fitting that two students and I visited the home of the man hailed as the father of freedom and patriotism just days before the inauguration of our 45th president. After seeing where Washington lived and died, I began to question what a man who warned against the dangers of political parties would think of the state of American politics today, and I came to one conclusion: He wouldn’t like it.
I say Washington wouldn’t care for the way America’s government operates today because he was right – political parties have contributed to the divisive and polarized nation we live in today. It can be argued that the tensions between Republicans and Democrats are higher than they have been in recent years, with Republicans refusing to confirm former President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee and many Democrats loudly and publicly speaking out against the new President and his administration.
If you’ve ever listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton, you know that Washington was also dealing with tensions in his cabinet between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. He also had to confront dissent in newspapers and the decision of whether he would continue to serve after two terms, or step down and form a precedent for those who followed in his footsteps. But by many accounts, he handled these challenges with grace and poise. A favorite story we heard at Mount Vernon was of George Washington’s behavior when he had guests: Apparently, he would talk with them, but when he noticed that people weren’t able to have casual conversations in the presence of their general, he would leave the room and write letters so they would feel more comfortable. If true, I think that’s a pretty neat thing.
Now, Washington wasn’t perfect. He owned over a hundred slaves (who he freed upon his passing) on an estate of over three hundred slaves. It seems like he got to his high status position mostly through luck – he married a woman who was wealthy, his father left him a plantation when he passed, and he inherited the estate when his brother passed in 1752. But he’s still widely remembered as a great leader or a humble man whose legacy lives on over 200 years after his time – which brings me to Donald Trump.
I’m not going to say I want to go back to a time when Washington was president, and I don’t want to make direct comparisons between our first and 45th presidents. But the political system was arguably simpler and objectively younger than it is today, and different circumstances have helped shape our governmental structure into the convoluted state it’s in now. But it’s almost inarguable that Donald Trump’s actions will be remembered decades and possibly centuries after he leaves office. And in the words of my favorite musical, history has its eyes on him.
So while I stood in the same rooms Washington walked through, I couldn’t help but think about the history I would be witnessing in 6 days. And I hope Trump takes note of the pretty big shoes he has to fill. But my point is this: Our democracy has survived even after a Civil War, our nation has been unified after terrorist attacks and threats on its people’s safety, and even though society is polarized and it may feel like the union is falling apart, I’m confident that we will make it through the next four years. With a foundation laid by a man like Washington and everyone who fought and died for our freedom in the Revolutionary War, surely our nation can survive the presidency of Donald Trump, right?