George Washington Could Teach Trump A Lot About Free Speech
Unlike President Trump, George Washington always remained loyal to an American vision of freedom for the media and the arts, a vision that he himself did much to shape.
To listen to President Donald Trump and his surrogates rail against the American media, you would think the commander in chief was setting the stage for a nasty divorce proceeding. Some years back, he had a happy and reciprocal love affair with leading news and entertainment outlets, one that that he hasn’t yet forgotten.
In Europe and back home recently, the president insisted in another of his myriad “fake news” claims that, “NBC's equally as bad [as CNN], despite the fact that I made them a fortune with The Apprentice, but they forgot that!" And surrogate Kellyanne Conway accused CNN’s anchor Chris Cuomo of ignoring other issues at home and paying more attention to Russia than to the good old United States.
Our first president, George Washington, would probably be at least irked to learn—were he to return to the banks of the Potomac for a day—about all the serious charges of foreign meddling, which he warned adamantly against in his own Farewell Address.
But he also would likely be amused to see the Trump administration in such a dogfight with the Fourth Estate. He knew a little about the symbiotic relationship between people in power and their muses, who, in his day, often came in the form of poets working as journalists, or journalists working as playwrights.
George Washington, as general and as president, spent most of his career gliding past the daggers of his detractors, confident that free voices, though flawed and often inaccurate, were an essential element of a more open society and a bulwark against the omnipresent threat of oppression.
He made a point to be cordial with the press, and for good reason. Early on in his career, men and ladies of letters had adored and feted George Washington.
In October 26, 1775, a recently emancipated black poet, Phillis Wheatley, praised the newly-appointed commander of the Continental Army, writing,
Shall I to Washington their praise recite?
Enough thou know'st them in the fields of fight.
Thee, first in peace and honors—we demand.
The grace and glory of thy martial band.
Fam'd for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore!
It was start of a “golden age” of revolution in which America needed heroes and the “media” of the day was there to help polish their legends. Throughout the grueling seven years of the Revolutionary War, the fledgling U.S. press provided blow-by-blow accounts of the revolt, so that as Ben Franklin wrote in 1782, “the same truths may be repeatedly enforced by placing them daily in different lights in newspapers, which are everywhere read.”
For his part, Washington saw press, poets and playwrights—particularly the ones on his side—as the best defense against Tory lies. From his desk at Valley Forge, he wrote to the young poet Timothy Dwight to encourage him, stating that nothing would please him more “than to patronize the essays of Genius and a laudable cultivation of the Arts & Sciences, which had begun to flourish in so eminent a degree, before the hand of oppression was stretched over our devoted Country.”
Washington was, of course, a great actor on the stage of history and politics, and he also knew that no great actor could survive without the help of muses, who could be seen in public as free of shackles that others might place on them.
In May 1788, George wrote to his friend the Marquis de Lafayette, “Men of real talents in Arms have commonly approved themselves patrons of the liberal arts and friends to poets, of their own as well as former times,” adding that, “In some instances by acting reciprocally, heroes have made poets, and poets heroes.”
By contrast, Trump and his staff hammer the press daily with personal insults and have threatened to eliminate funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars annually to support independent voices, often critical of authority.
The White House has made plain its disdain for funding the NEA as well as public radio and television, but with major corporate and private backing, independent critics of those in power are likely to continue plying their trade regardless.
Breaking revelations that the Trump campaign actively sought foreign help to defeat Hillary Clinton are only likely to further stoke the fires of domestic criticism aimed at White House, also sometimes referred to as “The People’s House.”
Such a role for artists and the media is as “all American” as apple pie and began with the imprimatur of POTUS #1. President Washington had to deal with members of the Fourth Estate out to ridicule and undermine his tenure. A leading and rabid critic, Philip Freneau, hired to work for the U.S. government by Washington’s sometimes friend and rival Thomas Jefferson, spent much of his desk time writing scathing critiques of Washington in his wildly partisan National Gazette.
The paper was entirely unforgiving of anything that struck of gilded pleasures, calling Washington’s 61st birthday, party, for example, a “forerunner of other monarchical vices,” and asking rhetorically if the celebration of a leader’s birthday—which was widely demanded by Washington’s many admirers—was not a “striking feature of royalty?” One cringes to think what Freneau might have concluded from one of Trump’s lavish weekend soirees or staff pool parties at Mar-e-Lago.
The best way to understand the difference between POTUS #1 and POTUS #45 might well be to review the social milieu in which they earned their political chops.
As George launched his military career during the French and Indian War, the heart of the Old Dominion, Williamsburg, was witnessing an explosion of drama and fiction, including new plays marked by scathing satire, often with ironic twists aimed at highlighting or pillorying societal norms. George’s personal development ran parallel to this “Augustan Age” of wit, wisdom, and criticism.
Comedies of manners, as they were called, became all the rage before and after the French & Indian War. Virginia, like mother England, was learning to laugh at society, but, in particular, to make fun of stuffy, wealthy types who typified the ruling classes. Across the channel in France, writers and critics took a similar tack through plays, pamphlets, and cartoons, which would eventually spell the demise—and beheading—of the monarchy.
As in Paris, leading characters in many of Williamsburg’s popular dramas were marked by their acute character flaws, which—more often than not—made them comic misfits. Other stage stories delved into scandal—including into the sexual peccadilloes of the elite class.
Washington found himself regularly at the theater in Williamsburg in the company of a Thomas Jefferson, who—in contrast to George, who liked his expensive “box” seats—often enjoyed watching performances from the rowdy “pit” beneath center stage, where detractors could throw rotten apples, tomatoes, and orange peels if they didn’t like what they saw—which could be numerous times in an evening.
Indeed, it is hard to see how Washington could have become the same inspired hero of the Revolution and advocate of a vibrant arts scene had he not been exposed to this rollicking age of drama in his teens and early twenties.
By contrast, it is worth remembering that Trump spent his early days promoting fake wrestling matches before he expanded his interests into beauty pageants—a far cry from the Colonial Era.
Despite the barbs thrown at him later in life, Washington never surrendered his belief that a battle of ideas was worth engaging in. He knew that arts and a free, unshackled press provided a means for him and his fellow Americans to envision their own ideals—to put meat on the bone, so to speak. It was this faith in his own ideals that guided his evolution as one of America’s earliest and most influential patrons of the arts. He had his flaws, but he always ardently supported freedom of speech.
He wanted his fellow Americans to embrace this love and stated that: “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”
While Washington was seen—by virtue of his muses and a free press—as the embodiment of all courage and devotion to the nation for most of his career as a leader, and as president, he became—by the end of his first term in office—a prime target for ridicule. Ironically, his unusual reward for fighting to oust a monarch from American shores was that he was now accused openly of coveting a crown. It was a story without substance, but it still stuck in some quarters.
Regardless, as president, Washington rarely displayed public disdain for the press. Only on one notable occasion, but within the confines of his own cabinet meeting, did he explode rather wildly against the insults cast upon him by the Fourth Estate.
At the closed meeting, his loyal friend, Henry Knox, who served as secretary of war, seized upon a newly published satire in the press titled “The Funeral Dirge of George Washington and James Wilson, King and Judge,” a playful little drama in which Washington was dragged before the guillotine for alleged “aristocratic crimes.” It was light satire, but it went too far for the president. It was, after all, suggesting his beheading in no uncertain terms.
George’s temper, which he struggled to control all his life, blew a fuse, and Thomas Jefferson described the rage of the president in these words: Washington went into a tirade, he said, and shouted that he would “rather be on his farm than be made emperor of the world, and yet that they were charging him with wanting to be king.” It wasn’t the first time he had been ridiculed, and it would not be the last, but even magnanimous George had his limits.
He was at the end of his rope (and almost his presidency), and so he now dreamt about his ensuing and final retreat from politics beneath his proverbial “vine and fig tree” at Mount Vernon. In the end, the false and unsubstantiated charges in the media that he coveted a crown may well have bolstered his image when it became clear to his fellow Americans that he never harbored any such aspiration.