Sunday was the birthday of George Washington, honored for two centuries as the father of his country. What we should always remember must include his character and his judgment, as well as his great accomplishments. Although born (in 1732) to a prominent family, the young George’s father died, followed soon by his older brother. He was home schooled. He was a surveyor, farmer and superlative soldier before he became the statesman that presided over the framing of the Constitution and served as the first president of the United States.
George Washington’s character is revealed not only in what he did but in what he refused to do. He showed extraordinary leadership qualities while still a young man and quickly rose in the ranks of Britain’s army in the North American colonies. Several incidents tell us volumes.
Although British interference in the government of the colonies, including Washington’s native Virginia, aroused passionate protests and even calls for independence, he did not join in them. His neighbor, George Mason, soon to be author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, pressed him to support independence, but to no avail. As a soldier, Washington knew the high cost of that fateful step would be destructive war which he was already thoroughly familiar with.
But once Washington concluded, as the Declaration of Independence would put it, that "The history of the present King of Great Britain [wa]s a history of repeated injuries and usurpations all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States," he did not look back.
Better known is what Washington decided at war’s end. Having led the colonial armies to victory, the country was immeasurably grateful. This commanding general could have ruled as a dictator. But he resigned his commission and returned to private life. Hearing of this act of self denial, Britain’s King George III called Washington "the greatest man in the world."
Rivaling this act of surpassing virtue, Washington in 1784 personally intervened to prevent a mutiny by his fellow officers over the failure of the Continental Congress to pay their long-overdue salaries. He read his prepared remarks only after he produced his glasses, necessary he said because of the cost of "service to my country." That gesture alone may have convinced these angry and dangerous men that, however just their grievance, they should respect the authority of the Congress, the only government they had and the one they fought for.
And then there was the unfortunate fellow who suggested, in light of the weakness of the confederacy and the early state governments that preceded the national government under the Constitution, that Washington should become king. His reply not only was righteously indignant but was a reprimand for which the recipient apologized for the rest of his life.
Washington was a man of great dignity that he knew was necessary for the leader of a new nation. Gouvernor Morris of Pennsylvania, a delegate to the Federal Convention of 1787 won a bet with fellow delegate Alexander Hamilton that he would have the nerve to slap Washington on the back in a display of close familiarity. But when Washington gave him a cold stare, he knew his triumph came at a very steep price.
Washington, like the Roman general Cincinnatus that he admired and modeled himself after, was reluctant to take on duties and honors of which he graciously declared himself unworthy. He had to be persuaded to attend the Federal Convention, at which delegates unanimously elected him president. He seldom spoke, his August presence being enough to discourage frivolous speech or behavior.
Twice Washington was unanimously elected President of the United States by the electoral college, the only person ever to be so honored. His voluntary retirement, despite the fact that the Constitution placed no limits on the number of terms served, is in perfect harmony with his prior decision to resign his commission after leading America to independence. He had launched the government and could move on.
The detractors of government by the people believe that it is fatally prone to instability and confusion, not to mention ineptitude. But Washington’s life and actions teach us that the completion of our form of government consists in the elevation to office of the greatest characters. Washington’s greatness is not incompatible with self government. It is indispensable to it.
It is no accident, then, that James Flexner, author of a recent biography of Washington, should have called him "The Indispensable Man." For government is not just about power, rule and authority but requires good character.