The highlight was a visit to our all-time family favorite, Mount Vernon. This cherished home of George Washington overlooks the Potomac River in the beautiful Virginia countryside. Spending the afternoon learning about our first president was a good reminder of why we consider George Washington, as Henry “Whitehorse Harry” Lee eulogized, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
The day after our visit to Mount Vernon, we went to the Holocaust Memorial Museum and went through a special exhibit titled State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda. This exhibit was both fascinating and frankly terrifying as we observed how the Nazi Party preyed upon residual fears from the ruin of World War I and how Hitler manipulated chaos and discontent from the Great Depression to further his personal political ambitions.
I was particularly shocked to learn how quickly Hitler was able to consolidate power and strengthen his grip over Germany. In January of 1933 Hitler was named Chancellor to run government operations by democratically elected President von Hindenburg. That March a law was passed giving Hitler “temporary” control of the both the legislative and executive branches of government. Then by July all political parties other than Hitler’s Nazi Party were outlawed. It was a startling reminder of how tenuous our freedoms can be.
As I went through the Holocaust Museum and considered the immeasurable toll of genocide and war, I pondered the question that many have asked themselves: How could this have happened? The answer of course cannot be reduced to simplicities, but for me a significant part of the answer was found in the contrast of having spent an afternoon at Mount Vernon, learning about the life of George Washington.
On one hand was a mad man who would stop at nothing to gain power and feed his psychotic ego mania. And on the other hand was the ever-reluctant leader whose service arose from a selfless sense of duty. Washington was a key figure in charting the course for freedom in the Declaration of Independence. Then he put his livelihood and life at stake, fighting to make the sentiments in that document a reality. Washington played an integral role in establishing the framework for the new government under the Constitution. He then put those principles into practice, setting countless precedents for running the government as our first president. Washington showed us the way to transfer power from military victory to civilian government. And he showed us the way to transfer power between presidential administrations peacefully.
In my estimation, the guiding principle in George Washington’s life that led to his remarkable choices that had tremendous consequences for each of us was his unbending belief in the power of "We the People." His life itself was an extraordinary example of one person’s power to do good. And it stands in contrast to Hitler and other monsters of history as an example of one individual’s power for evil.
That was the great take-away from my visits to Mount Vernon and the Holocaust Museum: Ultimately it comes down to people, often a single individual, and whether what we say and do serves only ourselves or serves some greater good. This is the measure by which we can judge leaders of the past and our leaders today, and it is the measure by which we should judge those who aspire to be our leaders in the future.