Writing about George Washington on the day we commemorate his birthday usually would be a puff piece. However, this year of all years, it’s important to remember who George Washington was and what leadership he offered our country.
For the better part of two centuries, Americans mythologized and practically deified the Founder of our country. Legends grew up about Washington and the cherry tree, as well as, the time he tossed the silver dollar across the Potomac.
Another generation of Americans point to Washington’s flaws. Like most wealthy Virginians, he was a slaveholder. His will left provision for freeing his slaves and caring for the elderly and infirmed ones, but this doesn’t remove the stain of slavery. His military service record was also deeply flawed. In the French and Indian War, he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French. He lost far more battles than he won during the Revolutionary War. On a comparably petty note, like many men of the era, he was vain about his clothing.
In either deification or deconstruction, many Americans have forgotten who Washington the man was. Washington now is an answer to a trivia question, a spokesman in cheesy furniture warehouse ads and a face we see when we count dollar bills. What made Washington great? What made him “first in peace, first in war, and first in the heart of his country?”
Simply put, he renounced the power he could have had.
In revolutions throughout history, oppressed people have rallied to generals to obtain deliverance from their oppressors. The generals who succeeded chose almost without fail to become the new kings, and often the new dictators. George Washington refused a crown.
In stark contrast, today’s Capitol is full of people elected to serve the people who use their positions as a means of obtaining an ever increasing amount of power. Who in DC would decline a crown if they could have it?
Washington had the opportunity to be a king given to him by a Continental Congress that was short on money and often had poor leadership. In 1783, the officers of the Continental Army were ready to mutiny against Congress if they weren’t paid. Many lesser men such as those who inhabit the halls of government today would see the opportunity. As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said while he was President Obama’s Chief of Staff, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Other leaders have seen that there’s a path to power in fanning the flames of legitimate grievances.
Yet, General Washington went to speak to these officers, not to play off their anger, but to acknowledge their concerns and call them to patience, wisdom, and honor. Towards the end of his speech, Washington tried to read a letter from a member of Congress and kept stumbling over the words. He then did something the men had never seen him do before, he pulled out a pair of spectacles. The great man offered an apology. “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” This brought many grown men to tears in an era where that was not commonplace.
This year, U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) will decide whether forty-two years in the U.S. Senate is enough or if the country can’t possibly go on without him in the Senate. George Washington had no such allusions. When Washington once again accepted the call to service, he served two, four-year terms and then stepped aside, setting a precedent all but one of his successors followed. When Franklin Delanor Roosevelt broke the precedent, Congress enshrined it in the Constitution.
Washington’s example meant our most popular presidents were mindful they held their positions for a limited time. The country was bigger than them and the office was bigger them. It also meant our worst presidents could only do so much damage.
In leaving office, Washington showed the same grace and humility he’d shown throughout his public life. In his farewell address he said:
Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.
Who in American leadership today would ever allow for such probabilities of having committed “many errors,” due to their “defects?” Our politics today is one of petty posturing, egotism run mad, and shameless self-promotion.
More than two hundred years after his death, George Washington remains the gold standard for what American leadership ought to be and rarely is. Washington’s faults don’t diminish that. Washington was not a god or an angel, he was a flawed human being, but he exemplified the type of dignity, class, and humility that leaders ought to possess.
Even the best leaders struggle to live up to the greatness of Washington on these matters. To quote the play Hamilton. “Next to Washington, they all look small.” However, most aren’t even trying. Let’s admit that, on both sides of the aisle, our 21st Century leadership has become the polar opposite of Washington, weep, pray for God’s mercy, and seek out leaders who will seek to live up to Washington’s example.