“‘Before there was a nation, before there was a symbol of this young nation — a flag, a constitution, a national seal — there was Washington. . . . But Washington was there, steadying the symbols, lending strength to them instead of drawing from them.’”
by Scott L. Vanatter
When schoolchildren discover why George Washington is the indispensable Founding Father, American becomes stronger.
As adults gain a deeper appreciation for his character, accomplishments and place in American history, our Liberty is better valued and more secure.
Accurately placing Washington in world history rightly reveals the miracle and import of America’s founding. This lays the foundation for the concept of American Exceptionalism as a matter of our purposeful design, not as a description of whether or not we are doing better than other countries.
Washington played the key role at the conception of our liberty. Lincoln challenges every generation to experience a “new birth of freedom.” We can when we understand Washington’s life and times. His was the key role and the glue which held together the men, the gathered states, and the eternal principles on which our Nation was founded.
Historians have written libraries full of biographies on great men. Not many of these book describe the seminal influence of military and political leaders. Washington stands alone in how he, as a leader, related to power. Rightly so, he is famous for laying it down. As important is his elegant and effective use of the same, in the face of extraordinary challenges. But these two important aspects do not toally define the man’s legacy.
“The ultimate significance of George Washington’s life lies in the fact that he singlehandedly redefined our traditional idea of greatness. Before he lived, to be great was to be triumphant, to conquer an enemy’s territory, to kill his soldiers, and subdue his populace. In an age when divine right held sway over most of the planet, greatness was measured by authority vested in one man, and the lengths to which he would go to keep that authority.
“To his everlasting credit, George Washington was ambiguous about power. The man who could have been king insisted that sovereignty lay with the people, however imperfect their judgment. At the end of the war and again at the end of his presidency, he calmly walked away from power.” (Richard Norton Smith)
In a moment of self-reflection George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton,
“Without virtue, and without integrity, the finest talents and the most brilliant accomplishments can never gain the respect, and conciliate the esteem, of the truly valuable part of mankind. I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough, to maintain, what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” (August 28, 1788)
Washington was held in the highest esteem in the minds and hearts of his countrymen. A modern historian put it this way.
“Before there was a nation, before there was a symbol of this young nation — a flag, a constitution, a national seal — there was Washington. Even when in the course of revolutionary events a flag did appear and a Constitution, they did not have a long tradition behind them. But Washington was there, steadying the symbols, lending strength to them instead of drawing from them.” (Garry Wills)
When we ‘see’ George Washington, we ‘see’ America. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, one of the heroes of the second day at the Battle of Gettysburg, a college professor prior to the Civil War and a college president and governor after it, described how we — in later generations – can almost go back in time and ‘see’ the great things done by our ancestors on our behalf.
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; And lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” (Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Speaking at the dedication of the monument to the 20th Maine, October 3, 1889, Gettysburg, PA.)
That all schoolchildren and all adults would so see! Whether we see Mt. Vernon, Concord, Lexington, or Philadelphia in person or in our books and imagination, still we need to see. We need to see in this manner so as to be able to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
With such foresight the nation can and will continue to fulfill her destiny. Without it, we risk losing, as Lincoln called us, “the last best hope of mankind.” Washington expressed a similar sentiment over eighty years prior to Lincoln. In a letter to James Warren, March 31, 1779, George Washington wrote, “Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!”
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Quotes about George Washington from his contemporaries
In 1783 upon hearing of his impending retirement as commander in chief of the Continental Army in 1783, George III of the United Kingdom, said of Washington,
“If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Upon his election Abigail Adams described Washington thusly,
“He is polite with dignity, affable without formality, distant without haughtiness, grave without austerity; modest, wise and good. These are the traits of his character which peculiarly fit him for the exalted station he holds. . . . It is my firm opinion that no other man could rule over this great people and consolidate them into one mighty Empire but he who is set over us.” (Abigail Adams, in a letter to John Adams, 1789)
Later the next year Marquis De Lafayette, his former aide in the Revolutionary War and who had returned to his native France, sent him the key to the Bastille accompanied by a letter describing Washington as the patriarch of liberty.
“Give me leave my dear General to present you with a picture of the Bastille, just as it looked a few days after I ordered its demolition, – [and also] with the main key of the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute which I owe as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-camp to my General, [and] as a missionary of liberty to her Patriarch.”
When the former president died, the Alexandria Times reported,
“At first a general disorder, wildness and consternation pervaded the town. . . . From the time of his death to the time of his internment the bells continued to toll, the ships in the harbor wore their colors half-mast and every public expression of grief was observed.”
Upon receiving the sad news Congress adjourned immediately. When it reconvened the next day John Marshall addressed Congress:
“Our Washington is no more! The hero, the patriot, the sage of America . . . the man on whom in time of danger, every eye turned and all hopes were placed.”
Samuel Livermore, President Pro-Tem of the Senate poignantly addressed the gathered leaders:
“Permit us sir to mingle our tears with yours. On this occasion it is manly to weep. To lose such a man at such a crisis is no common calamity to the world. Our country mourns her father.”
Upon the death the former president, President John Adams recommended the people of the United States wear a black crepe armband on their left arm. The commander of the British Fleet ordered every ship to lover her flag to half-mast. Napoleon ordered black crepe to be suspended from all the flags and standards in French service for ten days. When Napoleon was banished to Alba, he said, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”
Later, a French historian, comparing Washington and Bonaparte, observed,
“Search the woods where Washington’s sword gleamed: what do you find? Tombs? No; a world! Washington has left the United States behind for a monument on the field of battle…. Washington’s Republic lives on; Bonaparte’s empire is destroyed. Washington and Bonaparte emerged from the womb of democracy: both of them born to liberty, the former remained faithful to her, the latter betrayed her.”
The day after she heard of Washington’s death, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband:
“No man ever lived, more deservedly beloved and respected. The praise and I may say adulation which followed his administration for several years, never made him forget that he was a man, subject to the weakness and frailty attached to human nature. He never grew giddy, but ever maintained a modest diffidence of his own talents, and if that was an error, it was of the amiable and engaging kind. . . . Possessed of power, possessed of an extensive influence, he never used it but for the benefit of his Country. Witness his retirement to private life when Peace closed the scenes of War; when called by the unanimous suffrages of the People to the chief Majestracy of the Nation, he acquitted himself to the satisfaction and applause of all good men. When assailed by faction, when reviled by party, he suffered with dignity, and retired from his exalted station with a character which malice would not wound, nor envy tarnish. If we look through the whole tenor of his life, history will not produce to us a parallel.” (Sunday evening December 22, 1799)
Upon his death, Henry “Lighthouse Harry” Lee, entered the following resolution in the House of Representatives, “To the memory of the Man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.” A week later he gave Washington’s formal eulogy to Congress on 26 December 1799,
“Washington’s is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name no eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.”
Lee (Robert E. Lee’s father) famously enthroned the Father of our Country as the one they looked to in time of war, in time of peace, and when they reflected on his lasting impact. He was,
“First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.”
Almost fifteen years after Washington died, Thomas Jefferson, wrote of him in a letter to Dr. Walter Jones (2 January 1814),
“He was incapable of fear, meeting personal dangers with the calmest unconcern. Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration, was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but, when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed. His integrity was most 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. He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man. His temper was naturally high toned; but reflection and resolution had obtained a firm and habitual ascendancy over it. If ever, however, it broke its bonds, he was most tremendous in his wrath. In his expenses he was honorable, but exact; liberal in contributions to whatever promised utility; but frowning and unyielding on all visionary projects and all unworthy calls on his charity. His heart was not warm in its affections; but he exactly calculated every man’s value, and gave him a solid esteem proportioned to it. His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback. . . . On the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance. … These are my opinions of General Washington, which I would vouch at the judgment seat of God, having been formed on an acquaintance of thirty years…”
Decades later, celebrating Washington’s birthday, Abraham Lincoln said,
“Washington is the mightiest name of earth – long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty, still mightiest in moral reformation. . . . To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.”
George Washington: In his own words
ON THE REPUBLICAN MODEL OF GOVERNMENT
In his First Inaugural Address, April 30, 1789, he warned his fellow citizens that,
“The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
Washington understood that slavery was unjust and immoral. In his Will he decreed that all his slaves be freed upon the death of his wife. He provided an annuity for aged blacks out of the assets of his estate; the last surviving, aged former slave died in 1833. He further provided that, before emancipation of slave children, they be taught to read and write and be taught some useful occupation, even though the laws of Virginia forbade the education of slaves. (Prior to her death Martha carried out her husband’s wishes. Within a year slave children who had been taught to read and write were among the plantation’s 300 emancipated slaves.)
In a letter to Robert Morris , he wrote of his desires for an end to slavery,
“I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]—but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority: and this as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.”
He wrote to his nephew Lawrence Lews:
“I wish to my soul that the legislature of this state could see the policy of a gradual abolition of slavery: it would prevent much future mischief.” Chillingly Washington wrote in a letter to John Beard, “I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union.”
A modern commentator summarized Washington and slavery,
“The Founders declared in 1776 that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Washington took that not only as a challenge to the British, but as a challenge to himself. Like all men, he was imperfect. He might have refused to ever own slaves, or he might have freed them all when he was alive. But, in the end, like few Virginians of his time, he got it right.” (Terrence P. Jeffrey, in the Washington Post)
ON RELIGION AND MORALITY
In a letter to the Bishops of the Methodist church, Washington wrote,
“I shall always strive to prove a faithful and impartial patron of genuine vital religion.”
In his farewell 1796 address,
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Reason and experience both forbid us expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Upon resigning his military commission, Washington publicly revealed his sincere desires for his country:
At the end of the Revolutionary War, upon resigning his military commission, he wrote to the various states, seeking to overcome the imperfections of the Articles of Confederation.
“There are four things, which I humbly conceive are essential to the well being, I may even venture to say the existence of the United States, as an independent power – First, An indissoluble union of the states under one Federal Head. Secondly, The sacred regard to public Justice. Thirdly, The adoption of a proper Peace Establishment, and Fourthly, The prevalence of that pacific and friendly disposition among the People of the United States, which will induce them to forget their local prejudices and policies, to make those mutual concessions which are requisite to the general prosperity, and in some instances, to sacrifice their individual advantages to the interest of the Community.” (June 8, 1783, Circular to the States)
Less than a week later, on June 14 1783, Washington prepared and distributed to the governors of the which were about to become the United States the following prayer:
“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
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