Recently, I had the good pleasure of reading a biography of George Washington, by the historian James Thomas Flexner. It was aptly entitled "Washington The Indispensable Man." Before reading it, George Washington had been just a distant historical figure whose portrait, in my mind, was a mosaic composed of equal parts myth, misguided hearsay, and my own vain imagination. The Washington that came alive through the pages of Flexner's book, however, was very much a man. He lived in extraordinary times and struggled with the tremendous responsibilities that had been thrust upon him, but he forged ahead amidst self-doubt, glory seeking usurpers to his authority, and a sea of apathy to lead a people to freedom. That freedom became the birthright of a people which if they are going to continue to enjoy they would do well to learn from the example of George Washington.
George Washington was first and foremost a human being subject to like temptations and frailties as us all. He was born into a modest Virginia family of no particular distinction and, from a young age, seemed bent on proving himself to those whose station in life exceeded his own. His first foray into the world came as a late teen when he left for adventure in the Shenandoah Valley frontier, serving as an itinerant surveyor. Following the tragic death of his half-brother Lawrence to small pox, he sought after and won the position of Adjutant General of the Virginia Militia at the ripe age of 20. Ill-prepared for the responsibilities of his position, Washington entered clumsily onto the world stage, surrendering to French forces in a battle that was to spark the French and Indian War. Thereafter, shunned by the British Army, in which he had hoped to win a commission, Washington resigned.
Later, still seeking that elusive regular army commission, Washington served Major General Braddock as a volunteer aid in his campaign against the French in the wilderness of the Ohio Valley. Dismissing his young aid's advice, General Braddock lost his life in one of the most tragic battles of that War. Out of that battle, however, Washington, whose life was miraculously preserved, became something of a hero to the colonists. Unfortunately for his plans, he was used as a scapegoat to British authority. It seemed that "Providence," as Washington was often to say in reference to the hand of God, seemed to have other plans for this young man.
Between 1759 and 1775, Washington married Mary Custis and settled down, at Mount Vernon, to more mundane (albeit successful) business pursuits. In 1775, after the shot "heard round the world" was fired, Washington, who long before had recognized that the colonies had a separate destiny from England, began to wear his military uniform to sessions of the Continental Congress to demonstrate Virginia's willingness to fight. When rumors circulated that he might be selected as "Commander in Chief" of a new Continental Army, he urged members of the Virginia delegation to block his selection. Reluctantly, on June 16, 1775, George Washington accepted the "momentous duty" thrust upon him because Congress desired it, "but, lest some unlucky event should happen," he stated, "I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in this room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with." From this humble beginning, George Washington assumed the command of the new continental army, at that time an army of one.
During the Revolutionary War Washington faced challenges that would have overwhelmed most men. Intrigue and treason amongst his officer corps, apathy and selfishness amongst the population, and arrogance and insubordination from our French allies all conspired against him. Meanwhile, runaway inflation threatened to bankrupt him. Amidst this constant bombardment, Washington plotted a course, through unchartered territory, to liberty. In so doing, Washington left behind the conventional war tactics of his heritage to develop a new type of warfare, better suited to his ill-trained, ill-equipped and undisciplined forces. Furthermore, refusing to bend to our baser instincts, Washington sowed the seeds of national unity and liberty which we were later to enjoy by treating all people (friend and foe alike) with dignity, resisting the temptation to impose his will on the civilian population, and rising above factionalism to forge unity. In so doing, Washington often sacrificed temporary military advantage, but gained the moral force and authority that won him the loyalty of his men, the support of the civilian population, and eventually the War.
After the Revolutionary War, Washington attempted to settle into a peaceable retirement. As was his way, he refused to accept any reward for his military service. This path, however, was not an easy one. When he returned from War, Washington found Mount Vernon ill-kept and losing money. Moreover, Congress' slow payment of his wartime expenses and his war-time decision to back the prestige of the Continental, during a time of rampant inflation, left him deeply indebted. Still, Washington adhered to his principles. Furthermore, despite these troubles, the now world renowned war-hero, was a most gracious host who entertained visitors (both great and small) on a daily basis. Washington's longing for retirement, however, was to go unfulfilled for duty beckoned.
During and in the years immediately following the Revolutionary War, Washington saw the need for a unity amongst the thirteen states if our new found freedom was to survive. As always, Washington's way was not to presume to lead, rather he waited patiently for others to realize the need that was so manifest to him. In a series of steps culminating in the Constitutional Convention of 1789, Washington risked his reputation and honor to shepherd the leaders of our nation toward that elusive unity he believed so critical to our survival. And then, without campaigning and out of duty, Washington consented to his election, as President.
Washington approached the Presidency with gravity of purpose. The young nation still did not have a sense of identity and debate raged as to the direction it ought to take. Washington recognized that the hopes and dreams of people from all over the world were in the balance and that there were many enemies lying in wait to quench the fire of liberty. Moreover, he understood that his actions would have the force of precedent. Still, he exercised tremendous self-restraint, refusing to participate in legislative debates lest the people set him up as a King, permitted open and free speech even when spurious claims against him threatened national security, and avoided foreign entanglements. In so doing, he forged a path between the increasingly hostile federalist and democratic factions that no other President since has seemed quite able to duplicate.
In conclusion, George Washington was not great because of superior intellect or skill. Rather, what made George Washington a great man was his ability to discern the way and adhere thereto amidst tremendous turmoil. His personal restraint was remarkable. When the people could so easily have been incited to rage against the British and their colonial loyalists, when warring factions threatened the liberty of all, and when the people were ripe to anoint him King, George Washington led the way to freedom and the people followed. All Americans can learn from his example.