The Danger of a Cult of Personality
If George Washington had been a man like Donald Trump, our democracy would have quickly perished
I am writing this in mid October of 2020. The election that will determine if Donald Trump has a second term is a scant few days in the future. The warning I will give here is unlikely to sway any votes, but it may highlight a dangerous path we have been walking for more than a century.
The Christian Bible warns against idolatry. That concerned itself with images of “false” gods, but there is a parallel and a strong connection with rulers. Throughout much of history, and even in some instances today, kings ruled by Divine Right and were sometimes worshipped as gods themselves. Some of the idolatrous images the Bible objected to were of living gods stamped onto coins or erected as statues.
We see strong echoes of this in the Christian groups who believe Donald Trump is a “Chosen One”; chosen by their god to lead the United States. There is precious little difference between that and Divine Right.
George Washington saved us from that
Many readers might be unaware that in 1786, the President of the Continental Congress, one Nathaniel Gorham, actually invited Prince Henry of Germany to be the King of America. This was not a unique idea; it apparently had a least some support from other members of that Congress. Americans hated the British King, but so did the German monarchy, so the idea was not entirely unimaginable.
That particular effort quickly died, but Alexander Hamilton wanted the presidency to be a lifetime office and John Adams wanted the President to be addressed as “His Majesty.” Those two suggestions are much more of an echo of monarchy than democracy.
Wouldn’t Donald Trump love that idea? God Emperor Trump would be only a few steps away.
What caused this authoritarian leaning was fear of mob rule. You may vaguely remember Shay’s Rebellion from your history classes, but most of us are unaware of how frightening that was to our Founding Fathers. The temptation to weaken democratic rule was strong. A strong President was perhaps a way to accomplish that.
John Adams and his son were among those who objected to idolatry of Washington, but in the end it was George himself who would not assume a lifetime Presidency. I am certain Trump would not have refused.
But the cult almost continued
As early as 1786, plans were afoot for a federal coinage. It should come as no surprise that Washington’s visage was proposed for the coins. Samples were even produced in 1792.
Again, Washington took the high ground, saying that such coins would be very much the same as the portraits of King George III on British coins. The legislature quickly changed the law to demand something “emblematic of liberty” instead and Liberty was what appeared in our coins.
Paper money had Lincoln on it as early as 1861, but in 1873, Congress prohibited the use of portraits of living people on any U.S. money, security or postage. Liberty was still required for coinage.
That should have settled it forever, but a crack appeared in 1892. That was the year that saw the dedication of the famous Colombian Exposition, a national fair of unprecedented scope. Over a six month run in 1893, 27 million people visited the 690 acre display of amusements, history, art, inventions and more.
And the U.S. Mint struck a half dollar coin to commemorate the event.
Liberty had been on our coins for the past century, but this coin displayed Christopher Columbus. The next year saw a companion quarter featuring Queen Isabella. The first tiny bit of idolatry had reappeared.
Themes of Liberty still graced our normal coinage. The Indian Head Cent of 1864 was a slight deviation, but with a bit of squinting and some hypocrisy, the portrait could still be seen seen as “emblematic of liberty”.
The crack splits wider in 1909
Lincoln, as we know, was a national hero of epic proportions. As he had been born in 1809, there was pressure to produce a centennial coin to celebrate that. Theodore Roosevelt, a fellow Republican, loved the idea. We might well have made a one year commemorative as had been done with Columbus, and that was the original intention, but Lincoln’s importance and popularity nixed that. The Lincoln Cent has been produced ever since.
There were protests. Not everyone approved. Some Southerners may have still harbored hatred of Abe, but other people surely knew of George Washington’s refusal of a place on coins and objected for that reason. Public approval drowned that out.
Lincoln was the first resurgence of a cult of personality on our coins. Other coins, nickel, silver and gold, continued with themes of liberty (or native Indians), but in 1932 the Washington quarter was added to the pantheon. A Jefferson nickel arrived six years later, the Roosevelt dime in 1946, the Franklin Half dollar was in 1948, and JFK received his homage in 1964.
The only beachhead Liberty has held is on gold bullion. I imagine that if Donald Trump had his way, his face would replace it.
Will we ever escape the cult of personality?
Few politicians are likely to vote against Lincoln. Even though inflation has caused our one cent coin to cost much more than that to produce, efforts to retire it haven’t succeeded.
I have little doubt that the Washington Quarter will be equally difficult to kill off. We might have better luck with the other coins.
While human tendencies toward hero worship undoubtedly encourages memoralizing presidents on money, I suspect that making our famous presidents appear there also makes it easier to worship live examples. We have lost our caution against putting leaders on pedestals!
Raising mere humans to exalted positions has dangers. Those who see Donald Trump as a near messiah are risking much. A demigod can become a dictator with very little effort.
I wish we had stayed with what Washington recommended. I wish we taught children about the dangers of human idols. I wish our money still used Liberty rather than people. Our coinage was more beautiful and it emphasized the truly important ideals of liberty and freedom.