On this his actual birthday, George Washington remains the most admired but remote of American presidents, more portrait than person. Maybe because he intended it that way. Nobody would ever have described the country's first president as chummy.
Throughout his life and career, Washington was set on independence. Independence first for himself as a young man, and then, as a general and statesman, for his country.
To him, independence never meant indulgence. Quite the opposite. It meant certain qualities a struggling new republic in an age of monarchies would need in its leader: dignity, decorum and, yes, a proper distance.
The father of his country understood both the promise and the dangers all republics faced, and that most had succumbed to. But this republic would usher in a New Order of the Ages, just as it still says on the dollar bill.
Washington did not propose to fulfill so audacious an agenda by appearing audacious. He would be neither courtier nor demagogue. Rather, he would be the first citizen of the first republic to endure. No small ambition, for himself or for his country.
George Washington dared not forget what he represented. He represented America, and the American Idea that liberty and authority, freedom and order, could be one.
At the end of the 18th century, such a notion was sufficient to inspire snickers from tories of every nationality: Even if this colonial rabble managed to win a brief independence, they told one another, just imagine it trying to govern itself! Republics, they knew, never last.
There was reason, even necessity, for Washington's reserve for his insistence on the formalities and courtesies, on the powdered wig and dress sword, on the proper ceremonies and correct form of address. He had his and the republic's dignity to consider, and at the time they were much the same thing.
Washington set out to prove that a republic could do more than prevail in war that it could prosper in peace. How did he manage it? How did he carry off this bold experiment as if it were a formal ritual?
The clearest and most eloquent explanation may lie not in scholarly analyses, or in Washington's own weighty prose, but in the music of his time:
Listen to Haydn and hear the contest between theme and counter-theme, the folk melodies that are given free play but not enough to overpower the final triumph of decorum.
Listen to Mozart and hear the stately minuet transformed into a free, lively rondo, then brought back again to balance and moderation after some of the most unlikely yet, once heard, most predictable of steps. Mystery is turned into symmetry. So with Washington's leadership.
George Washington would lead a revolution and, once in authority, put down a mutiny.
He would prosecute a war for independence, and later declare neutrality for the same purpose.
He would preside over the creation of a new, highly complex and most uncertain constitutional scheme full of verbal artifice without saying a word.
He would put down a serious insurrection the Whisky Rebellion of 1794 without offering a single conciliatory gesture, and then pardon all the guilty.
As president he would listen to equal but opposite counsel, each presented forcefully and articulately, and make his decision. Then he would sincerely implore the adviser whose advice he regularly rejected, Mr. Jefferson, to remain in his cabinet.
Washington's now distant music is really a familiar 18th-century medley, a working out of old and new into a blend that is balanced, stable, temperate, yet ever new. Washington's policies may have changed from time to time, but never his vision of what a republic could be.
If this is a young country, it is among the oldest of living republics. The French are now on their fifth republic, but who counts? Meanwhile, the first and only American republic marches along toward its tricentennial.
What is the key to the remarkable longevity of this American experiment? The answer to that question may lie in its spirit, the well-modulated spirit of Washington. His is still a standard to which, in his phrase, the wise and honest may repair.
In this mass democracy that the republic has become, dignity and decorum now have only an antique appeal. They are scarcely recognized as what they are: guarantees of freedom's permanence.
In a perceptive essay, the historian Edmund S. Morgan pointed out the two guiding themes in Washington's politics: interest and honor. The old general understood that republics must appeal to both if they are to endure.
It is clear enough that politicians still know how to appeal to our interests; there are times when they appeal to nothing else. Let us encourage our leaders to appeal to our honor, too.