“Simple truth is his best,
his greatest eulogy.”
– Abigail Adams, speaking of George Washington
America’s first President. General of the Continental Army. Dude on the $1 bill.
Everyone’s heard of George Washington – but what do they actually know about the guy? Answer: not much. He’s lent his name to countless institutions, organizations, and places, including a north-western state and the nation’s capital itself. His face is carved into a mountain. Yet for all this, he comes off as just about as relatable as the marble obelisk erected for him in D.C.
Truth is, this estrangement isn’t a new phenomenon – even in his own day, George was something of an enigma to his contemporaries. As you can imagine, 200 years haven’t improved the situation.
George Washington is the #1 example of the problematic way we have approached the American Founding Fathers for too many years. In our noble efforts to honor him, we have instead succeeded in making him inhuman and distant. If he seems boring, it’s because we made him that way. Which is such a shame, because I love George.
So let’s start afresh.
The George You Don’t Know
George Washington was over 6′ tall, built like a bear, with a volcanic temper and was described as “the greatest horseman of his age.” He loved farming and fashion. He liked to dance and flirt with the ladies, who by and large considered him to be one fine specimen (translation: he was hot). And he was ambitious.
He joined the British army at 20 years old, right after the passing of his older brother Lawrence (whom George had idolized), he was promptly promoted to Major and immediately got everyone’s attention:
- His 1st mission resulted in the publication of his military diary, which circulated about the colonies and even in England.
- His 2nd mission accidentally started the French and Indian War (or Seven Years War) when he may or may not have killed a French ambassador (all we know is the dude ended up dead).
Yet no matter what George did, his reputation seemed to grow and improve.
Not for nothing either: Washington was a natural in battle, displaying awesome bravery and miraculous immunity to enemy fire. In one skirmish, 4 bullets pierced his coat, 2 struck his hat, and 2 horses were shot from underneath him, but Washington emerged without a scratch. As insane is it seems, Washington was never shot or struck once in his life, despite frequently fighting at the front lines.
By the age of 24, Washington enjoyed fame throughout the colonies for bravery and prowess in his exploits. But the British army could only get him so far – it quickly grew apparent that because he was an American colonist, Washington would never advance further in rank. The prejudice irked Washington, and he retired from the army, married the lovely young widow Martha Custis, and returned to the plantation left him by his brother Lawrence – the vast estate of Mount Vernon.
Working the land, Washington discovered a lifelong passion – farming. With an insane work ethic he inherited from his mother, Washington would go into the fields himself and work alongside his slaves through the afternoon (he owned around 130 slaves, his wife owned another 150 herself). He could be a driving taskmaster (something else he learned from his mom), and unforgiving of laziness, but overall, Washington treated his slaves humanely.
The slave owner thing is a big blemish on his record though, to be honest.
Here Comes the General
By 1775, Washington was a lean, mean 43 years old – a successful planter, a colonist with a bone to pick with Britain, and a figure of no small standing in the colonies. In fact, next to Benjamin Franklin, he was the most well-known man in America.
A physically imposing man (he was huge), Washington – who frequently had emotional outbursts as a kid – had mastered an artful social style over the years characterized by refraining from expressing thought or emotion to project a quiet dignity. It worked. When colonial anger boiled over and a Continental Congress was summoned, Washington was one of the first delegates chosen to represent Virginia. Shortly after arriving, he was unanimously elected as the commander of the Continental Army.
The American Revolutionary War would last 8 years, and became a proving ground for George Washington in many ways. All told, the Americans lost more battles than they won, but in the kind of war they were fighting, that hardly mattered. The goal was to keep the army standing long enough until the war became a burden the British Empire could no longer afford.
Though not a great military strategist perhaps, Washington’s leadership was indispensable to American forces. For 8 years, Washington held the army together, facing opposition both from the enemy as well as from his own generals, and constantly having to train new recruits as there was a yearly turnover of enlisted soldiers.
By some miracle, the soldiers stuck it out – despite the nearly disastrous loss of New York, the nightmarish winter at Valley Forge, and the traitorous plots of supposed American heroes. I’m surprised the soldiers didn’t just up and mutiny or desert as a whole. But their loyal perseverance is largely due to Washington’s presence and unmoving sense of purpose in the war.
Something About that Washington Guy
Many soldiers testified that there was something about George Washington that inspired undying confidence and loyalty. As one Frenchman said upon meeting him:
“I cannot describe the impression that the first sight of that great man made up on me. I could not keep my eyes from that imposing countenance: grave yet not severe; affable without familiarity. Its predominant expression was calm dignity, through which you could trace the strong feelings of the patriot and discern the father as well as the commander of his soldiers.”
That “calm dignity” and “strong feelings of the patriot” embodied by Washington, along with dual roles of father and commander to the army, would prove the key ingredients to American Victory.
One of my favorite battles was the Battle of Princeton in 1777 where Americans fought against British troops led by General Cornwallis. As often happened when the British began to fire, American soldiers flipped out and started to run away – at which point Washington arrived with reinforcements. It was the battle’s turning point.
Riding forward to the front of the lines, Washington called out to retreating soldiers as British fire rained around him: “Parade with us my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we shall have them directly!” At his command, the men lined up in formation. Washington then – with hat in hand – led the march toward the British, riding ahead of the men and calling out for none to fire until he gave word.
When only 30 yards away from the British, Washington halted his men and gave the order – “Fire!” The sudden hailstorm of bullets, from both sides, filled the air with such dense smoke that it was impossible to see, let alone count casualties. Convinced this was the end for the General, one of Washington’s officers pulled his hat over his eyes so as not to witness his commander’s demise; but when the smoke cleared, there was Washington unscathed and undaunted, waving his men forward to attack.
Dude. Talk about hardcore.
Washington’s unflinching courage turned a retreat into a victory that day, as would often be the case throughout the war.
Which isn’t to say that Washington didn’t have his moments.
Don’t Tick Him Off
For all the talk of Washington’s cool and stoic demeanor, he had a fiery temper that in his 43 years he had learned to suppress. But every now and then – under particularly trying circumstances – it would erupt, to everyone’s shock.
For instance, when the British landed at New York in 1776, American forces broke formation and began to retreat…a retreat that quickly turned into a rout. Seeing his soldiers abandoning the battle, Washington rode up, calling for them to rally. But panicking soldiers turned a deaf ear and high-tailed it outta there.
Losing his historic cool, Washington – the man who normally punished soldiers for cursing in his presence – let the obscenities fly as he threatened to kill any soldier who did not stand his ground, even hitting some with the flat of his sword. When that didn’t work, he began horse-whipping officers to get their men in line. Eventually Washington was left alone on the field and had to be dragged off by his aides as the British approached. Yikes.
In another incident, one of his generals – one Charles Lee (a complete jerk) – decided to disobey direct orders from Washington and called for a retreat right in the middle of the Battle of Monmouth. When Washington met Lee and his fleeing troops, Washington chewed the man out in front of everyone.
In yet another rare instance of Washington resorting to profanities, the rage-filled Commander cursed at Lee “till the leaves shook on the tree,” as one officer said. “Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing before or since.” The stunned Marquis de Lafayette standing nearby said it was the only time in his life that he heard Washington swear.
Washington was clearly a man of deep emotion – he had simply learned to not express it in public as part of a (largely successful) attempt to inspire respect. His projected image of serenity was essential throughout the turbulent years of war and transition to a new form of government. In fact, it went so far that his presence was often awe-inspiring to the point of being downright forbidding.
But that didn’t mean that he was devoid of sensitivity.
In fact, Washington was a downright softie.
A Farewell to Arms
When the war ended in 1783, for instance, Washington held a farewell dinner for his men during which he couldn’t eat because he was so emotional. At one point, he lifted a shaking hand to toast his devoted men, but his voice broke with emotion part way through. Tears filled his eyes, and Washington – who normally didn’t like physical contact – embraced each of his officers with a kiss before setting off for home. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.
As the war came to an end, there was not a doubt in Washington’s mind as to what he would do next: he would go home, and farm.
Spectators of the world were incredulous – this was unheard of. Everyone and their dog had expected him to assume control of the government since he had the military backing him. That’s what had always happened.
When King George III of England asked his American painter Benjamin West whether Washington would be head of the army or head of state with the end of the war, West responded, “They say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” the thunderstruck King responded, “he will be the greatest man in the world!”
Well, for 4 years he did just that. Washington returned home and worked on his farm, and his international reputation sky-rocketed.
Back in the Saddle Again
…But by 1787, it was clear that the provisional government set up during the war wouldn’t work as a permanent solution – the country was falling apart. And since Washington had led the country through one crisis, he was automatically looked to as the default leader now. So when the Constitutional Convention was called, men from all over the country begged Washington to join.
After agonizing over whether or not he should attend (he really didn’t want to leave his farm, but duty is strong), Washington gave in and headed to Philadelphia where he was unanimously elected as president of the convention and presided over the drafting of the Constitution – what became the supreme law of America.
Then, as outlined in the Constitution, a presidential election was held in which Washington was again unanimously elected. When his term came up four years later, he was elected unanimously again. Washington is the only American president unanimously elected in history – and he did it not once but twice.
I don’t think anyone can overstate how awesome George was as president not just because of what he accomplished (and he did a lot), but also because no one had ever been president before. Since the job description in the Constitution is spare on specifics, he essentially made up the job on the fly. The presidency is what it is today largely because of how Washington conducted himself for those first 8 years. Like, he was the one to come up with the very idea of a presidential cabinet – and filled it with men of genius (like Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as the Secretaries of State and Treasury).
But of all the precedents he set during those eight years, no precedent established has been more influential in American politics than Washington’s coup de grace: he stepped down after two terms.
With Posterity in View
Washington resigned when everyone expected him to serve for life, creating what would have become essentially an elective monarchy. In doing so, Washington established a tradition of presidents serving only two terms that remained unbroken until President Franklin Roosevelt (and even then, it was afterwards added to the Constitution as an amendment).
Washington’s second surrender of power once again reverberated throughout the world, embedding itself in the psyches of rulers everywhere. When the great Emperor Napoleon was deposed and sent into exile, he lamented, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” The very name of “Washington” had become synonymous with republican humility and grandeur.
Remarkable, isn’t it, that in obtaining power, the normally ambitious Washington was both careful to use it, and quick to give it up. He knew full well he was setting precedent – he knew posterity was watching him.
Also, he was straight-up tired and just wanted to go home.
Isn’t That a Little Much
In response to his humility and magnanimity, the American people were quick to heap honors on his head. I mean, just look at the crazy paintings they made of the guy:
Washington usually found this kind of attention embarrassing. He avoided passing through towns if he could help it because he didn’t want to encounter welcome parties and parades held in his honor (they would often find him anyway).
Upon returning home, he kept indications of where he lived to a minimum, so many people got lost in the woods trying to find his house.
In his will, he stipulated a private, humble funeral with few attendees so there would be minimal pomp and ceremony (mock funerals were held throughout the country anyway, as well as in France where Washington was eulogized; even the British lowered their flags to half-mast in his honor).
Washington was only home for two years before he died in December 1799 at the age of 67. He had gone out to inspect his plantation despite the snow and cold, and when he returned hours later, he fell sick and passed away the next day.
With his passing, Washington had one more trick up his sleeve: his Will. In it, he did what Thomas Jefferson and James Madison did not: he set his slaves free. He provided a pension for the aged and established a way for all to learn a trade and make a living. It was the final act of a man who had grown to see the paradox of a “free” nation sanctioning slavery, and who finally did something about it.
Washington was by no means a perfect man, but he did try to be a good one.
More than His Monuments
George Washington did so many great things, it is easy to lose track of the man behind the resume. I think the coolest thing about Washington is that he’s no different from us. He was a real guy with passions and foibles and who lost his temper now and then. He wasn’t untouchable. He liked to farm, loved the theater and dressing well, and his favorite horse was named Nelson. Knowing stuff like that makes him more than just “the father of our country,” it makes him, well, real.