What Made George Washington Great

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February 25, 2011 by Daniel Stack

If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.

– King George III, upon hearing in 1783 that General Washington planned to return to life at his farm

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.

– Henry Lee, Eulogizing George Washington after his death in 1799

Earlier this week was the President’s Day Holiday in the United States. Like many who have opined so in editorials, I am not a fan of the combining of holidays honoring Abraham Lincoln and George Washington into a holiday honoring all presidents. I’ll avoid partisanship in mentioning any modern president but even with that caveat there have been some simply horrible presidents. President Buchanan who sat idly as the Union was rent asunder. President Harding who had quite possibly the most corrupt administration imaginable. I have no difficulty at all in ranking Washington and Lincoln as our two greatest presidents. One could argue which should rank higher.

In this posting I’d like to discuss George Washington a bit. I’ll not say he was a perfect man. He bumbled into starting the French and Indian War (as the American portion of the Seven Years War is known in the United States). His track record as a military leader is not particularly impressive. He bears the stain of the Original Sin of the United States, being a slaveholder.

That said I think you’d be hard pressed to find any president to whom you could not tear apart were you to desire to do so. After all, they have all been human beings, not demigods. John Adams, unique among the Founders for never having owned a slave or wanting anything to do with it, signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, laws which could easily be used to silence his opponents. Abraham Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus to prevent Maryland from seceding from the Union.

Keeping things focused on George Washington… One thing which is impressive is seeing the growth in him. Today we are quick to label any politician – or person for that matter – who changes his or her views a “flip-flopper”. While I’d not want someone who casually changes views in a position of authority, someone who allows his preconceived notions to be shaped by new experiences is something quite different and very valuable.

Consider Washington militarily. As mentioned before, he did not have the most impressive record if you count just wins and losses. But as leader of the Continental Army he realized his primary purpose was not to win but to exist. As long as that army existed the American Revolution was not a bunch of miltias fighting against its king but a nation struggling to be born. It wasn’t just an army, it was an idea integral to the existence of the United States of America.

His views on slavery, even judging by the standards of his day, were far removed from those of Franklin or Adams. Franklin became an abolitionist and Adams refused to have anything to do with slavery in his entire life. However it is worthwhile to note that his views on slavery did change in his lifetime. He began refusing to break up families and freed the slaves he had a legal right to free upon his death and made provisions for them in his will. I’m sure they’d have preferred to never have been slaves in the first place but Washington was the only slave-owning Founder to go that far. Jefferson made a talk about detesting slavery but his slaves were sold to cover his debts upon his death.

Finally, there is Washington’s view on power. I’ve heard many historians describe his version of greatness as being the rejection of power. This is something he did again and again in his lifetime. As the Continental Congress proved to be ill-suited to managing the birth of a nation against the most powerful empire in the world, Washington was granted vast dictatorial powers – powers which he proved willing to step away from. After the Revolution, he prevented his officers, angry that the Continental Army had not been paid as promised, from seizing power. And after the war he simply returned to his civilian life. When called upon to serve as President of the United States he was constantly mindful of the precedents he was setting. He avoiding the trappings of a monarch – the President would not have a lofty title like “his excellency” but would simply be addressed as a gentleman – “Mr. President”. And he knew how important it was that he not die in office. After his second term he chose not to seek a third term despite the fact he was all but guaranteed to win one had he sought it. History is filled with examples to this day of leaders who refuse to step away from ultimate power.

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February 2011
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