Declaration of Independence

Around 1962, Sam Salz donated a painting to the Kennedy White House titled "The Signing of The Declaration of Independence" by the French artist Charles Édouard Armand-Dumaresq (1826-1895). In the late 1980s, First Lady Barbara Bush decided to hang the painting over the fireplace in the Cabinet Room. It has been there ever since.


White House Historical Association/CC BY 2.0 (image cropped)

Today, Feb. 22, is the actual birthday of George Washington, the father of our country. He’s also got a decent-sized role in the Broadway hit musical “Hamilton.” But there are other, more pressing reasons for Presidents Day.

Though two notable presidential birthdays fall in this month — Washington and Abraham Lincoln — having a more all-encompassing Presidents Day accomplishes a number of goals: It relieves the holiday drought in the abbreviated month of February, and it helps to remind us of the partial roots of Black History Month, a once-cursory look at African American history that is now seen as a crucial window for understanding all of this nation’s history.

But there are actually four US presidents born in February. Do you know them? Washington and Lincoln are the big gets of course, but Ronald Reagan is up there in our time, and there’s also William Henry Harrison. He got pneumonia at his inauguration and died a month later.

Though we celebrate our presidents every February, for centuries we have been puzzling over the person we elect every four years. The Constitution says he or she is supposed to be at least 35 years old and born in America, so immigrant Alexander Hamilton would actually be disqualified — really not a lot to go on there. Read the Federalist Papers, and you get a clear sense that the executive was not to be another king. So not a king, but if you read the Federalist Papers more closely, it’s clear they would accept somebody like a king, as Hamilton argued strongly.

Dynasties are suspicious, but in the United States, dynasties are apparently still alluring. We’ve had two President Bushes, two Harrisons, two Adamses and two Roosevelts, one for four terms. We came pretty close to two Kennedys and two Clintons. There’s something comfortable about the good, old stable-well-dressed-everyone-has-the-same-name royalty.

Military generals tantalize us for the same reason. George Washington, the “father of our country,” was a no-brainer, but Andrew Jackson veered a little too close to military dictatorship. He took over the first Federal Bank, defied the Supreme Court, did some ethnic cleansing with the Cherokee people, forcing them off their land in a dreadful government-driven slaughter we charitably call the Trail of Tears, and he is still holding the $20 bill hostage until Harriet Tubman officially frees it in 2020.

In Donald Trump, we have chosen a man from a real estate dynasty, a billionaire developer (though without seeing his tax returns, we can never know for sure just how rich he actually is). He has challenged Americans’ notions of who is fit to be in the White House. He's a self-declared outsider who promised to "drain the swamp." He's a businessman who "says it like it is." Up until Jan. 20, he never held public office and certainly doesn't conduct himself like a "normal" politician. For all of this nation’s economic problems, it might just be a decent investment, if at the end of these four years we as a people finally have a better understanding of what kind of person should be president of the United States.

This is not purely an academic debate, and neither is it some partisan question. It is the unresolved riddle of the US Constitution. The work of solving that riddle is being done every day in courts across America by heroic public interest lawyers, government litigators, and judges arguing the challenges against the Trump administration.

In another way, solving that riddle is the work of the writers, performers and satirists who craft the comedy and increasingly obvious punch lines for the TV satire shows that ridicule our leaders. Deepest of all, it is the yearning of a nation trying to confront its history and stake a claim on the future. You can hear that each night in the Broadway musical “Hamilton” — if you can get a ticket. It’s a show that will not need to stand for re-election and will still be selling out in four years, I’ll bet. But Trump? Well, to use a line inspired by the musical, this may be our only shot to really solve the central riddle of the US Constitution.

This story originally aired on The Takeaway

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