Think of an elected official everyone admires. It’s not so easy, is it? Now try George Washington. Twice unanimously elected by the Electoral College, the first U.S. president probably comes closest to universal admiration. Others like Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt (either one), Kennedy and Reagan have sizable constituencies with axes to grind, or worse.
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen. Without Washington, rebellious colonists may never have broken free of mother England, and today we all might have cockney accents. Instead, last week we marked Washington’s 275th birthday.
Perhaps there’s more to our collective admiration than those yarns about the cherry tree and throwing the silver dollar across the Potomac (both probably apocryphal) and that he was the first of many chief executives. Perhaps his legacy endures because of the man, not just the general and president, Washington was.
Washington understood government’s inherent weakness: “Arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of liberty abused to licentiousness.” And personal limitations: “Few men have virtue enough to withstand the highest bidder,” he’s believed to have said.
There’s, of course, his courage. In the French and Indian Wars’ Battle of Monongahela in 1755 two horses were shot out from under him, and four musket balls ripped through his coat. He escaped unharmed. Providentially, as he might have regarded it. How many “leaders” would reject being made monarch, or turn down a huge (for its day) $25,000 salary as president, until persuaded to take the money to avoid setting a precedent that only rich men could afford the presidency?
Washington also was a man of unashamed faith, which shaped his life and governance. “[I]t is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor,” he famously proclaimed in establishing Thanksgiving Day in 1789.
No one’s fool, Washington knew, “A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of friends.” Unsurprisingly, we find harmony in his words and actions, which is probably why the aphorism, “I cannot tell a lie,” endures.
Perhaps most of all, this plantation farmer-cum-statesman might be admired for his prescience and his understanding of what’s at stake when liberty is threatened.
“The time is now near at hand,” Washington told the Continental Army before the battle of Long Island in 1776, “which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their houses and farms are to be pillaged and destroyed, and themselves consigned to a state of wretchedness from which no human efforts will deliver them. The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
Spend a moment in silent gratitude that such a man was so resolved.