I have often thought about George Washington’s description of our nation as the “great experiment,” and how each presidential administration has been an experiment unto itself. Every decade gave way to new problems, new technology, new wars, new foreign policy, new legislators, new scandals, and new immigrants.
Tempered by the times, each president has lent his talents, and some have given their lives, to George Washington's "great experiment." And each, in his own way, has committed himself to Washington's first precedent: "the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty." Their presidential history is our history, the evolution of a nation.
No one can fully understand the history of the United States and its present position in the world today without knowing something about the kind of men who have held its highest office. Often, textbooks integrate into the chronology of America's story the most important contribution of the most significant of our presidents along with a sprinkling of names and dates of those who had less of an impact.
But, every president, whether dynamic and strong, or weak in power, has had a hand in shaping the history of this country. Each left his personal imprint, yet there are parallels which can be drawn from them ALL that made the American experience what it became.
And, even “in spite of” some of our presidents, Washington’s “great experiment” endured. Keeping the president in check, Congress was able to pull the nation through and carry the torch for the Founding Fathers. And though we have tolerated the erosion of some of our liberties through the policies of presidential administrations beginning in the 20th century with Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and continuing to the present, the nation persevered.
In his first inaugural address (April 30, 1789) George Washington said, “The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.” Left in the hands of the American people the “great experiment” will survive or perish.
In 2008 the American people choose a young president with lots of promise. He assured the electorate there would be “hope” and “change.” This guarantee to voters was perceived by many to mean change from the same political gridlock to a new way of doing things – a bipartisan reach across the aisle by the new administration.
Instead, “change” defined by the new president was an entirely different political philosophy – a philosophy he had written about in his books, “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope,” and one he had learned from mentors. Not a commitment to the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty,” but a new way of governing under a completely different social and economic philosophy – a movement away from capitalism and the principles outlined in the Constitution.
Entrusted to the American people on November 6, 2012 was a clear choice between the “preservation of the sacred fire of liberty” or that of the new path chosen by this 44th president. The American people chose the latter. Four years prior, the candidate was unfamiliar to the electorate. But after a full term in the White House, his record unmistakably spoke to his method of governing, and yet the American people chose this model anyway.
The tie that bound each administration to the next was a commitment to the vision of the Founding Fathers and to the preservation of the Constitution. Can it be that Washington’s “great experiment,” which endured for 224+ years has come to an end? You decide. It is my opinion that the electorate cannot be excused for making such a clear choice. They have made a conscious decision to “change” America as we know it.
Class Activity: Have the students read the above commentary, then divide the class into discussion groups. Each group should decide whether they agree/disagree with the premise of this lesson and present the factors supporting their decision. (For example, a group may agree with the premise, but not for the reason given. Instead, could argue that the electorate was misinformed by the media who failed to properly vet the president throughout his first term. And, therefore, the choice made was not a deliberate one. Etc., Etc.)