February 5, 2007
By Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
George Washington is one of the most recognized figures in U.S.
history. But familiarity breeds contempt. More often than not,
Washington is an old painting on the wall - solemn, impersonal and
distant - or the subject of childhood stories and nursery rhymes.
We all know that he chopped down a cherry tree and had wooden
The actual Washington is much more compelling. We can all see the
brilliant flourishes of Jefferson's pen, Madison's constitutional
handiwork or the success of Hamilton's economic policies, and that
can cause us to overlook or underestimate the magnitude of
Washington's achievement. Yet he really was, as Washington's
greatest biographer, James Flexner, put it, the "indispensable man"
of the American founding.
Remember that we look at history with the luxury of knowing what
happened. What might seem inevitable or obvious in hindsight was
more often than not a bold course, the outcome of which was
uncertain at best. We must recapture this sense of contingency and
daring if we are to understand Washington.
A soldier by profession and a surveyor by trade, Washington was
first and foremost a man of action. He was at every important
intersection of the American founding; his decisions and practical
wisdom were crucial to the success of the effort at every stage.
And at every moment - from the time he became commander in chief to
his death - his project was to found a self-governing nation, a
constitutional republic. It is here that we see the brilliance of
Washington's statesmanship, his hand on the political pulse of the
nation, all the while urging, counseling, warning, bolstering and
leading his fellow patriots in their common efforts.
From 1775 onward, when the Continental Congress appointed him
military commander of continental forces, Washington personified
the American Revolution and was the de-facto leader of the colonial
struggle. For eight years, Gen. Washington led his small army
through the rigors of war, from the defeats in New York and the
risky crossing of the Delaware River to the hardships of Valley
Forge and the ultimate triumph at Yorktown.
Through force of character and great leadership, Washington
transformed an underfunded militia into a capable force that,
although never able to take the British army head-on, outwitted and
defeated the mightiest military power in the world. Washington lost
many more battles than he won, but his defensive strategy achieved
his political objective: an independent and unified nation.
After the war, Washington was the central hub of correspondence
among the most thoughtful men of the day, leading the effort in
nation-building. He was instrumental in bringing about the
Constitutional Convention, and his widely publicized participation
gave the resulting document a credibility and legitimacy it would
otherwise have lacked. Having been immediately and unanimously
elected president of the convention, he worked actively throughout
the proceedings to create the new Constitution. "Be assured," James
Monroe once reminded Thomas Jefferson, "his influence carried this
As our first president, he set the precedents that define what it
means to be a constitutional executive: strong and energetic, aware
of the limits of authority but guarding the prerogatives of office.
The vast powers of the presidency, as one Convention delegate
wrote, would not have been made as great "had not many of the
members cast their eyes towards General Washington as president;
and shaped their ideas of the powers to be given to a president by
their opinions of his virtue."
And the key ingredient in all of these things was moral character,
something that Washington took very seriously and which gave to his
decision-making a deeply prudential quality and to his authority an
unmatched magnanimity. "His integrity was pure, his justice the
most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or
consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his
decision," Jefferson later observed. "He was, indeed, in every
sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man."
It is no coincidence, then, that Washington's most important
legacy comes during moments of temptation, when the lure of power
was before him. Twice during the Revolution, in 1776 and again in
1777 when Congress was forced to abandon Philadelphia in the face
of advancing British troops, Gen. Washington was granted virtually
unlimited powers to maintain the war effort and preserve civil
society, powers not unlike those assumed in an earlier era by Roman
dictators. He shouldered the responsibility but gave the authority
back as soon as possible.
After the war, there were calls for Washington to claim formal
political power. Indeed, seven months after the victory at
Yorktown, one of his officers suggested what many thought only
reasonable in the context of the 18th century: that America should
establish a monarchy and that Washington should become king. A
shocked Washington immediately rejected the offer out of hand as
both inappropriate and dishonorable, and demanded the topic never
be raised again.
More subtle and problematic was a move by a group of officers in
1783 to use the military, with or without Washington's
participation, to threaten the Continental Congress in order to
ensure their payment of the army. The Newburgh Conspiracy placed
Washington in a critical and delicate position. Had he either
ignored the discontent or tacitly approved it, the political
outcome would have been different and the possibility of a peaceful
resolution of constitutional questions less likely.
On top of that, several political leaders welcomed the army's
pressure, and wanted to use the threat as a way of strengthening
their call for a stronger national government. Congressman
Alexander Hamilton recommended that Washington "take the direction
of them" and lead the effort.
But Washington would have none of it. "The Army," he rebuked young
Hamilton, "is a dangerous instrument to play with." Instead, he
responded to the unsigned papers calling for the army to stand up
against the political leadership, by holding a meeting of his
officers for March 15 - the Ides of March - 1783. There, Washington
denounced the move as destructive of the very ground of republican
government, and expressed his "utmost horror and detestation" of
those who would "open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge
our rising Empire in Blood."
After the speech, Washington drew a letter from his pocket
expressing Congress' intention to redress the army. He hesitated,
pulled out a pair of glasses and remarked, "Gentlemen, you will
permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray,
but almost blind, in the service of my country." Many of the
officers were in tears. If the speech had not already destroyed the
movement, this remark assured its demise.
"On other occasions he had been supported by the exertions of the
army and the countenance of his friends," wrote Capt. Samuel Shaw
of the episode, "but in this he stood single and alone."
By year's end, Washington, victorious in war, proceeded
voluntarily to resign his military commission. When he stepped down
again, after his second term as president, a dumbfounded King
George III proclaimed him "the greatest character of the age." His
peaceful transfer of the presidency to John Adams in 1797
inaugurated one of America's greatest democratic traditions.
Without Washington, America would never have won its war of
independence; he was the catalyst of the American founding. Even
more significant, he proved that republican government was not only
possible but indeed noble. Defeated and exiled, Napoleon lamented
the significance of it all: "They wanted me to be another
No one did more to put the United States on the path to success
than Washington. No one did more to assure a government with
sufficient power to function but sufficient limits to allow freedom
to flourish. No one walked away from power with more dignity or did
more to assure the prosperous society we enjoy today. This is why
Washington and Washington alone - not Jefferson, not Madison, not
Hamilton - is the father of this country.
Celebrated as early as 1778, Washington's Birthday was by the
early 18th century second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic
holiday. It was officially recognized by Congress as a national
holiday in 1870. The Monday Holiday Law in 1968 moved it from Feb.
22 to the third Monday in February. Contrary to popular opinion,
though, no act of Congress or order by any president has changed
Washington's Birthday to "Presidents Day."
If Americans wish to honor George Washington, they should recall
his deeds, recollect his advice, and once again call the holiday
celebrating him what it is, in fact: Washington's Birthday.
Ph.D., is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for
First appeared in The American Legion Magazine
George Washington is one of the most recognized figures in U.S. history. But familiarity breeds contempt. More often than not, Washington is an old painting on the wall – solemn, impersonal and distant – or the subject of childhood stories and nursery rhymes. We all know that he chopped down a cherry tree and had wooden teeth.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D.
Vice President, American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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