The Luck of Washington

As I write these words, we’re one day removed from the February President’s Day holiday – that great 1968 creation lumping presidents together in a Monday federal holiday bacchanalia of consumerism meant to drive us to the malls to shop – and in the midst of presidential primaries across the nation.

I often think that the business of antiques, being intricately linked to history, and acutely aware of its value, is uniquely positioned to appreciate the importance of the holiday like no other industry.

President’s Day is actually Washington’s Birthday, and was celebrated at first as Washington and Lincoln’s birthday. The two are commonly regarded as our greatest presidents, and I have no problem celebrating them. I do have problems celebrating all presidents – the actual elevation of the office itself, as the holiday implies – as I believe it’s contrary to the idea of the office itself and the democracy, which it represents. There have been great presidents, of both parties, and there’ve been some real turkeys, of both parties. It is not for me to decide who was what, but we all have our opinions.

I’ve been reading James McCullough’s 1776 for the last month every night before I go to bed. It’s about that fateful year in the American Revolution, when the Continental Congress gave George Washington control over the ragtag rebel forces fighting King George’s army, then the greatest military force on the planet.

It was an incredible journey through that year, and much of the successes that Washington and his forces enjoyed – there were many bitter and difficult defeats – were truly amazing. If you believe such things, they were the confluence of divine intervention and the incredible leadership of Washington.

It is no mistake that he is regarded as the father of our country. During the Revolutionary War he was given virtual dictatorial powers. He could have made himself king after the war and no one would have blinked.

The fact, though, is that Washington was a passionate believer in the cause of democracy as it was presented then, and put the ideals of the new U.S. Constitution above all other ideas. If you want to understand what I mean, what an incredible leader he was, and how unbelievably lucky America was to have him as its General in the war and as its first president, read any biography of Washington. You will never doubt again what a great leader he was, how much he deserves to be feted on his birthday – with more than car sale blowouts and bathing suit sales – and what a fragile and precious thing our democracy is. The mere fact of its inception and continued existence is an amazing story.

Perhaps I’m coming off somewhat jingoistic, so late after “President’s Day,” and so deep into the politically charged atmosphere of the presidential primaries. I cannot help but long, however, for the days of a leader like Washington, as our current crop of politicians – on both sides of the aisle – inveigle and obfuscate over minutae that has nothing to do with what our founding fathers created.

I also understand, even more, why material culture that bears a direct link to those figures, and the times in which they lived, are so valuable and so venerated in this business. Sometimes I think we’re the only ones who understand.

Noah Fleisher