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 government."
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 Washington."
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.
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies.
First appeared in The American Legion Magazine