Turning Away from Power

The Rotunda of the U. S. Capitol houses many grand paintings depicting crucial moments in American history. These works bring American history to life and remind all who stop to look at them of our nation’s rich heritage. As a Congressional intern, I had the enjoyable job of leading Capitol tours and attempting to explain the importance of these historical scenes to visitors. On the northwestern wall hangs my personal favorite among the paintings. It does not feature the Signing of the Declaration, nor the Pilgrims on the Mayflower, nor a military victory in the Revolutionary War, though those are all worthy subjects. Instead, it shows George Washington, following the achievement of American independence, resigning his military commission in preparation to return to his home.

George Washington braved tremendous hardships during the course of the Revolution. From braving a brutal winter in camp at Valley Forge to successfully outmaneuvering the most powerful military in the world, he showed tremendous strength and skill. When undisciplined American forces started to panic and retreat in battle outside Princeton, New Jersey, Washington single-handedly prevented a rout by walking calmly forward amidst a sea of flying bullets. Witnesses to the event said that only a miracle could explain his survival, but Washington did not so much as flinch as the British lines fired. His resolution played a vital role in the American victories of both the Battle of Princeton and the entire war. Following this victory, however, Washington faced another challenge, more subtle and more insidious than that of battle.

As a victorious general, and with the Continental Congress frequently acting weakly and incompetently, Washington had many opportunities to set himself up as a dictator. How many men, given such an opportunity, could have resisted grabbing such power? Hailed by the people and beloved by his soldiers, Washington could have easily crushed the few who would have stood in his way. Indeed, in the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, a group of army officers actually encouraged Washington to forcibly seize authority from the Congress, which was well behind on paying those officers at the time. Ignoring such temptations toward power, however, Washington chose in December of 1783 to give up his commission as Commander-in-Chief and retire to his farm. In doing so, he avoided falling into the temptation of power which ensnares so many successful leaders.

Power, like most temptations, comes disguised in attractive garb. Good men may imagine all of the benefit they could bring to others given authority over those others, and thus altruism is no sure guard against such a temptation. Would Washington have been wrong in seizing lifelong authority over the new American nation? Such a move, after all, would have instituted a sort of political order considered normal in most of the world at the time. Washington understood, however, that many men who begin by seeking power to benefit others end up simply seeking power. Given that we are finite and live in an imperfect world, no person ever acquires sufficient power to accomplish all the good they could wish, and thus the search for more power never ends. Instead, many lives often end as the result of such a search.

By resigning his commission, Washington cut this temptation short from the very beginning. He chose humble private life over the self-aggrandizing position of a dictator. While he did later return to public life to serve as the first U. S. President, he remained carefully within the realm of authority established for him by the constitution, establishing a valuable precedent of government by laws, not men. Moreover, he once again gave up power voluntarily after two terms. If any man, American or not, is attracted to the good he might do given sufficient power over other men, let him consider Washington’s example. History provides numerous examples of men who might have done well had the temptation of arbitrary power not driven them to commit great evil. By contrast, the virtuous Washington, as we see him today in the Capitol Rotunda, stands as a rare example of one who was offered a crown and walked away.


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