George Washington has become something of a mythical figure in our national consciousness, a distant and perhaps even dour personage. We may know that we’re supposed to revere him, but he was hardly cuddly.
There is some truth in that image, which to some extent he himself cultivated. It is worth remembering, however, the debt Americans who cherish liberty owe to him.
George Washington as a young man was fiercely ambitious, with a fiery temper. He understood, however, the importance of disciplining himself — which sometimes translated into an impression of aloofness — and over time he became more ambitious for his country, and for preserving its liberty, than for himself. He understood his reputation would be all the higher if he succeeded at that difficult task.
Although a military leader, he did much to establish the tradition of civilian control over the military.
In 1783, after independence had been secured, Washington learned of a plot among some of his officers, upset over not receiving back pay, to stage a coup against the Continental Congress. He ended the plot by sheer force of personality, drawing on the respect in which he was held to prevent a possible military government.
Before the Constitution was drafted, many Americans wanted to crown him king. He steadfastly refused.
Elected as president unanimously in 1789, he declined to accept a salary and took care that the necessary pomp and ceremony attached to the office reflect republican dignity rather than resembling the European courts.
He was genuinely reluctant to run for a second term. Although he supported the principles of the emerging Federalist Party, he refused to become embroiled in partisan politics. He refused to run for a third term, establishing the precedent that the president is not a monarch or part of some nobility, but a private citizen expected to return to private life.
Although he could have done so given his popularity, Washington scrupulously refused to take to himself more power than he thought the Constitution specified, respecting the prerogatives of the other two branches of government even when he was impatient with them.
Thomas Jefferson, who sometimes clashed with Washington over policy, later wrote: “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
A wealthy plantation owner who owned slaves, he came to see slavery as morally wrong and in his will he freed his slaves.
If there had been no Washington, this country would almost certainly not have been as free as it became.