For many months, I have wanted to briefly cite my love and admiration for George Washington. I have written about John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other luminaries in our struggle to be free, but last night I was prompted again to say something here about Washington.
We were sitting around a bonfire, as is our custom here at the Ranch during the summer evenings, eating homemade grape ice cream (I've given you the recipe in a comment below, you won't be disappointed) and sampling Grandma's desserts (many varieties of cookies, brownies and other delectables). One of my precocious granddaughters after listening to me talk about the founders in glowing terms, asked, "Grandpa, did you know George Washington?" I told you I was growing older. . .
I replied, trying to repress my laughter, "No, I didn't really KNOW him personally, but I've read a lot about him and the other founders." Some things have to be explained, you see, when the questioner is four years old. It's that perception of time thing they don't understand. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it. I'm not really that old.
I was reminded in her question last night about a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to Dr. Walter Jones in 1814. Jefferson was our nation's third President, serving from 1801 to 1809. Jefferson captured the essence of the first President, George Washington, in this word picture:
“[H]is was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example.”
George Washington was the commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783. He did not want the command when it was first offered. His record of military achievement prior to the Revolutionary War was that he had lost more battles than he had won. In the early stages of the War he made several tactical errors. His mastery of military strategy was lacking. His troops were, like himself, first farmers. The term "summer soldiers" was coined to describe those who left the battlefront to return to their farms in the fall to harvest their crops. They were by all descriptions a rag-tag undisciplined lot. However, no one doubted his valor and courage, nor his moral integrity. He was a leader people could believe in. Soldiers loved him. They would to a man fight and die for him. He accepted the post under some measure of duress from his peers.
He could have used his position as the General to his own advantage, but he never did. There were suggestions that he assert himself over the civilian authorities and take forcible control of the government and the army as the king, but to those who suggested the idea to him, Washington issued a stern rebuke.
Perhaps my favorite story about George Washington happened in the final year of the Revolutionary War. Washington was dealing with severe shortages in the number of troops, clothing, food and pay for those troops. He had served under a dysfunctional and largely ineffective civilian Congress for more than eight years. In the last year of the war the troops were near the breaking point. They hadn't been paid in a almost a year and there was little hope remaining the situation would be cured. There was a pernicious pamphlet circulating among his soldiers calling for them to storm Congress and force them to pay the delinquent wages.
Washington called a meeting to discuss the problem. He told the troops he knew what they were going through and he urged them to wait on Congress. Most were not the least bit convinced. He began to read a letter to them from a member of Congress. He took out his glasses so he could read it and his hand trembled visibly. In simple words, apologizing to them, he said, "I am sorry Gentlemen, I have grown old in your service, and now it appears I have also gone blind." There wasn't a dry eye in the room and the disaster was averted. That's leadership. He had suffered side by side with his men, and everyone knew it. If you only read one book about George Washington, read the one cited here: The Real George Washington.
He was exemplary as the Commander in Chief of the army, then later when he served as an elected representative from Virginia to the Continental Congress after the War. He consistently deferred to their civilian control and authority, establishing an important pattern to observe for later generations and following the rule of law established under the Articles of Confederation until the Constitutional Convention created a new rule of law. He was ever the subservient advocate of "the people."
In 1783, when the War for Independence had ended, he resigned his commission as General, longing to return to his beloved Mount Vernon. Retirement was his sole ambition in life at that point. By so doing, he proved King George III was underestimating the character of this other George. The popular thinking at the time was that Washington, unable to resist the lure of wielding power would simply not be able to walk away quietly, and King George III predicted as much. When the king was told of rumors that Washington was returning to his farm, he responded, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Well, there are those who erected an obelisk to his name in Washington D.C., then named the city after him who would have agreed with that assessment. The majesty of George Washington was the purity of his heart and character.
Washington was called back from retirement, however, denying him his wish for a quiet life on the farm as he presided over the Philadelphia Convention that drafted the United States Constitution in 1787. When the provisions of the Constitution had been ratified by first nine, then eventually all the thirteen original colony states, Washington was elected as the first President of the United States of America. He was unanimously elected by the first Electoral College, something that has never been repeated since in American history.
Washington eschewed any party label, and urged against the practice, fearing a fracturing of the people in the fledgling republic. He served two terms as America’s first President from April 30, 1789 to March 4, 1797. Then Washington decided it was important for him to step down. He had no lust for the power that might have so easily been conferred upon him by the people. He wanted to set an example before the world, not just for the people of America, so a peaceful transition of power was possible. He believed it was an absolute necessity before he died, again keeping in mind the precedent he wanted to set forevermore.
His concern was if he died in office and the vice-president ascended to the presidency, it would resemble too much an "heir" ascending to the throne after the death of a king. He was ever the careful strategist then.
Washington’s farewell address, of course, was once again a precedent maker. It would become the most quoted political speech ever given. In it he warned of the importance of virtue among the electorate, and he issued a crystal clear warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. It was forever afterward sought for wisdom in these matters, but history since has proven difficult to abide by his precepts.
There was enormous admiration for this self-disciplined leader, perhaps again the highest praise coming from his former adversary, King George III. He said Washington’s retirement from the presidency along with his earlier resignation as General and Commander in Chief, “placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living,” and that his relinquishing power made him “the greatest character of the age.”
It is such a stark contrast to what we witness today, isn't it? Think of the hundreds of millions of dollars amassed and spent for years in the runup to a presidential election in our modern era by eager candidates grappling for the very power Washington eschewed and deferred to other successors willingly without as much as a whimper of protest.
George Washington died in 1799. Henry Lee, delivering his funeral eulogy, declared Washington “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Historians consistently rank him as one of the greatest Presidents of United States of America.
It was his moral clarity and purity, once again, that exemplifies his greatness in my mind.