The “Newburgh” test is the third and last of my essential tests to judge Presidential fitness. Taken together, the answers to these three examinations will indicate the general worth, and potential greatness, of anyone who would be President of the United States.
In the first test, the “Madisonian test,” we ask if an executive – or any elected official for that matter – holds the rights of the individual above the authority of the state. In Madison’s term it is a matter of the “sacred fire of liberty.” To pass this trial by fire is the most important single test for an office holder in a free nation.
The second test asks whether or not the prospective office holder can govern his own ambitions, and subjugate himself to the needs of the state, put otherwise, does a man seek public office to perform public service, or self-aggrandizement? This “Nicola test,” comes from an episode in which George Washington angrily rejected the notion that he be made the monarch of America.
Today I present the “Newburgh test,” asking whether or not a leader can stand firm not against enemies, but against friends.
In 1783 the fighting was over in the War of Independence, but peace had yet to be secured. This ambiguous state required the Continental Army to remain active and trained, if only to ensure hostilities were not renewed. The practical result was that America had an army – one that had ever been difficult to keep united – with nothing to do, protecting a fledgling nation that could only promises as payment. It is a mixture that has proven toxic to many states.
Army officers gathered in Newburgh, New York, openly contemplated mutinous plans.
These officers had sacrificed greatly in the service of the new nation. Homesteads, loved ones, and personal fortunes were gambled – and usually lost – in military service. The officers were patriots, and were personally loyal to Washington, but they had been pushed to the very limit of their endurance and no end could be foreseen.
Addressing the officers (including a famous act of putting on his glasses) Washington carried the day. After hearing from Washington the officers scraped their arguments and voted overwhelming to remain loyal to Congress and the ideal of America. Washington has moved the officers as only a friend could. He spoke plainly and honestly, without lofty promises and devoid of assurances of a robust pension and payments. Washington stood up to the very men who enabled his success, and not offering more, rather asked more of them. The officers would continue to willingly sacrifice for the greater good.
Political observers cite the “Sister Souljah” moment of President Bill Clinton as a modern example of standing up one’s friends in the interests of the whole nation, but that comparison fails. In scope and significance the two moment are nothing alike, and most importantly, the Newburgh moment was conducted privately, without polling and other political calculation.
At Newburgh Washington has again shown his greatness and his dedication to an ideal. He told the men he most loved that they were wrong and convincingly won their agreement. Washington held that the idea of the liberty won in the Revolution was above temporary and personal concerns, and he was not hesitant to use that fidelity against the direct interests of his loyalists.