Think for a moment of your dealings with representatives of the government. What is it like to be audited by the Internal Revenue Service? Are the people at the motor vehicles registration office always kind and polite? Do building inspectors treat you like a customer? Would you rather deal with the person who sells you a shirt, or the person who grants you a government license? Winston Churchill once encapsulated the feeling one gets about the government agent in the modern bureaucracy with a phrase: "no longer civil, no longer servants."
On the other hand, have you recently met a soldier, a sailor, or an airman? If you visit a military installation you will likely find that you are saluted and addressed as "sir" or "ma'am," and people will be solicitous of your needs and ready to serve. This phenomenon, often noticed, is a little strange when one thinks of it. The member of the military is part of the most disciplined and most powerful branch of the government. In most nations not even the ruler can afford to do anything until he finds out what the generals and the admirals might think about it. The civilians quiver in the streets when the armored vehicle passes by.
Not here. Why? This week, we pass an anniversary that explains this wondrous fact.
Back in 1783, the American military had been transformed from an untrained rabble that ran from the British into the conquerors of North America and the defenders of a new great Republic. Congress had already taken on some of the characteristics for which it is now famous, and so it did not pay these heroes their wages. Some of them became rebellious and proposed to head off into the wilderness and leave the new Republic unprotected. Others thought of traveling to the capital to demand compensation. One man proposed that George Washington be made king. These dissensions turned into a movement, which threatened to become a mutiny.
Fortunately, the great Washington, without whom we would have no country, was on hand. He had proved himself on the battlefield a man of unmatched courage, of unsurpassed patience, of inexhaustible will. All looked up to him. The greater the man, the better he understood the superiority of the commanding general.
In March 1783, some disaffected officers and men called a meeting to air their grievances and look for solutions. Washington postponed the meeting and rescheduled for March 15, 1783 — 217 years ago. Then he surprised his officers by attending the meeting himself.
In a handsome speech at Newburgh, where the Army was headquartered, Washington reminded the soldiers of his many years of comradeship with them. Of course he had served throughout the war without any pay whatsoever. Of course he had led them to victory while sharing their every privation. Of course he had never given himself leave from duty. Indirectly, he reminded the men of these facts. And then he said that he would be "their servant" — subject only to the civil authority that all are bound to respect — in the matter of getting them paid. They dispersed, ashamed.
And so on this day a massive step was taken toward the building of a military dominant in the world, and yet utterly subservient to the weak civilians who are its rightful masters. This is no little thing. We should remember it this day, and thank George Washington.