Abigail Adams wrote of George Washington, “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Although George Washington remains a revered figure in the pantheon of American heroes, the detail of his character and the stunning improbability of his accomplishments—namely the retention of the army through eight years of dogged warfare and the unification of the nation during a most important first presidency—constitute important lessons of leadership that are lamentably neglected in today’s comedic theatre of political flailing.
George Washington’s life was exceptional for a number of reasons, not least being the manner in which it evolved from his beginnings as a surveyor in the backwoods of a British commonwealth, to the presidency and pinnacle of power in a nation that over time would owe it’s global hegemony to his discretion and temperament during its volatile and uncertain infancy. Always happiest when physically active, Washington spent his early adulthood surveying the western mountains and hollows of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. Although he was by no means the archetypal self-made man that Americans love to revere, neither was he born into Virginia’s elite, and he devoted his time copiously to self-improvement and particularly to the governing of the passions and emotions that always laid just beneath the surface of his severe countenance. In his early twenties, personal tragedy would ultimately provide him with fortune, and the death of his brother Lawrence ensured that Washington would inherit Mount Vernon, a medium sized plantation situated on an idyllic hillside overlooking the Potomac and what would become the nation’s future capital, bestowing his name. When he married Martha Custis, a Virginia widow, whose husband’s death had left her with substantial landholdings, Washington became one of Virginia’s wealthiest Planters and, subsequently, an owner of many hundreds of slaves.
Before marrying Martha, Washington followed in the military footsteps of his late brother Lawrence. He served as a loyal and devoted soldier in the British army, and was at the center of the ignition of the French and Indian War in 1754. Washington was always ambitious, and he became embittered by Virginia Governor Dinwiddie’s refusal to allow his promotion in rank. This personal insult to Washington’s deep pride would later prove formative in his personal decision to break with the Crown. His military experiences and intimate knowledge of British military strategy would also prove vital to his capacity to defeat England’s war machine. In 1758, he retired to life at Mount Vernon, where he applied his private energies to the management of his farms and his public energies to the Virginia House of Burgesses, a royal legislative body. As a planter, Washington’s entire economic self-interest relied on good relations with the Crown, whose naval preponderance was vital to protecting British and colonial merchants sailing from London to the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, in every sense, he was a very loyal British subject for the majority of his life and was hesitant to entertain a split with Britain in the early 1770s, when Massachusetts’s patriots began clamoring for independence.
As events unfolded in the early 1770′s, it became increasingly clear that Britain viewed American colonials as lesser citizens. When the Crown began to tax the colonies heavily to finance Britain’s European wars, the Americans demanded famously, “no taxation without representation,” Patrick Henry delivered his powerful “Give me liberty or give me death” speech in Richmond, and polemicists blasphemed the crown’s tyranny, with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense the most influential of all.
Washington followed events in Boston and Richmond closely, but he was slow to come to the conclusion that independence, achieved through war against the most awesome military force on the planet, was a plausible course of action. Having endured personal insult from the British crown frequently throughout his life, silent embers of discontent burned deep within him, and the Crown’s despotic overreach slowly ignited them into full flame. Parliament could never have known, but by thwarting this young, seemingly insignificant Virginian as he attempted to rise through the ranks of the British army, it had produced the sharpest thorn in its own side and an enemy that would eventually change the course of British history forever. These personal affronts had ignited a burning sense of injustice in this proud, sensitive, and ambitious man and show students of history that the Crown had insulted Washington’s pride long before the events in Boston, and later Virginia, inspired revolution. As Parliament’s arrogance devolved into ever more humiliating and demeaning acts of tyranny, Washington’s resolve hardened, not only toward the inevitability of independence, but also to a belief in the courageous morality of the cause. Always a slow decision maker, Washington was known during his tenure as General of the Continental Army, and later as President, to confer with his trusted advisors first, and then to deliberate for long periods of time, before making his final decision. This taciturn president possessed the gift of silence, but upon arriving at his resolution, not even the full might of the British Empire, nor the ineptitudes of the Continental Congress, nor the political propaganda, driven by the subversive machinations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could stand in the way of Washington’s formidable will.
While Washington did not possess the philosophical intellect of Thomas Jefferson, nor the theoretical mastermind of Alexander Hamilton, he possessed something else, which during the war years and his two terms as president, proved more vital to the fledgling nation’s survival than any of the other founders’ comparable gifts. Washington possessed the magnanimous prudence and judgment of a great unifier. His capacity to guide his ragged army through 8 years of war, in which he toiled with daily regularity to prevent his army from disbanding, due to lack of food, clothing, and pay was a masterful performance of perseverance, self-possession, and most-importantly, a constant devotion to his men, not as a friend, but as a father. This paternalism, when viewed through the historical lens, was the result of a man whose capacity to govern his own intense emotions allowed him to lead all others with heroic fortitude through the impassioned crucible of Revolution.
Similarly, his ability to balance the competing views of America’s future, as promoted and defended by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—the two most talented cabinet members in his first term as president—demonstrates a prevailing coolness throughout situations that could easily have disbanded the fragile union. Although he agreed more with Hamilton’s vision of a powerful, centralized executive branch, whose institutions—notably a robust National Treasury and National Bank—would align the economic interests of the individual and of the states with the federal government, he was by no means the Hamiltonian puppet that Jeffersonian propagandists would later claim. In fact, Washington often tempered the excesses of Hamilton’s genius with his incomparable sense of judgment concerning the union’s preservation. This capacity to guide and curb excess, which he often orchestrated through silence and patience, was his signature, and the last years of Hamilton’s life provide no better testament, for without Washington’s restraint, Hamilton’s unparalleled genius often subjected itself unnecessarily to the self-inflicted wound.
As we scour the fields of today’s presidential election campaign, we should remind ourselves that George Washington, a man, not without faults, but who possessed an incomparable dignity, grace, and reverence for national unity, established the office of the presidency. Therefore, when considering our presidents, we must ask ourselves if candidates, the men and women we would choose to lead from the most powerful office in the world, possess the presidential qualities exemplified by Washington. As Chief Justice John Marshall observed, Washington was the indispensable founder. Prudence begs that when electing, we consider the dispensability of our presidents and the manner in which they will be remembered by posterity.