Today is the birthday of the greatest American who ever lived. He would have been a spry 279 years young today and ironically, he probably would be disappointed in what the nation he helped to father has become. (Ever a man of the earth who loved working his land, he would have been disappointed by our transition away from our agrarian roots.) Number 1 in your hearts and number 1 in the chronologic order of presidents, George Washington is my nominee for the model citizen in the history of our great country.
It is not just that he cuts a dashing figure on the dollar bill, told the truth bout cutting down his dad’s cherry tree (sadly, a total myth) or that he was one of the reasons many people had the day off yesterday. More than anyone else, he is responsible for the fact that our country even exists today and for setting us on our path towards national prominence. Maybe he was in the right place at the right time and rode the coattails of a successful revolution to become “first in war, first in peace and first in the heart of his countrymen”(1), but he had multiple major contributions to the success of our fledgeling nation that set him apart from all others.
Most people focus on his contributions as the Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army and that is as good a starting point as any. The general view is to see that he took a smaller, ragtag army and defeated one of the best militaries of the colonial world. But in specifics, it was more than that. It can be debated how much of a military strategist Washington was, losing a large number of battles during the revolution. But he won key victories when it counted, including a number of strategic moves. Everyone remembers the surprise Christmas night Battle of Trenton when Washington led his troops across the Delaware River to defeat Hessian allies of the British.
However, this inspiring victory does not happen if not for a desperate retreat out of Brooklyn and into Manhattan in August of 1776, silently crossing the East River in the middle of the night with the British none the wiser. (With a special assist to some early morning fog.) And who was the last soldier to get into a boat? George Washington himself.
This is where Washington really excelled and is probably the true miracle of the revolution. He was excellent at keeping morale up and holding everyone together. The army then bore little resemblance to the well-oiled machine we have today. In 1776, it was a mishmash of militiamen and farmers with little to no training or experience. Some had allegiance to the national cause, but many were truly loyal only to their own state. Living conditions were atrocious as you were just as likely to die in battle as from the poor sanitary conditions in camp. Food and supplies were spotty and payment was even more so. By leading by example (like being the last soldier to escape, even though he probably should have been the first) and living through this with his soldiers and not just from some office somewhere removed from the battlefields, Washington kept everyone focused on the prize and not the hazards all around.
If his story would have stopped with ‘Revolutionary War hero’, Washington would have been one of the shining stars of our nation. We have had excellent military leaders all though the course of our history and will continue to do so. But what sets Washington apart is his actions and leadership after the revolution.
With no history and a vacuum of leadership after the British surrender in 1781, George Washington did something that few men (if any) would have ever done, changing our history forever and setting us on a path towards republican democracy. When the war was over, he disbanded his extremely loyal army and resigned his post as commander-in-chief. Read that sentence again. At precisely the moment that the most popular and powerful man in the just formed country could have used all of the resources at his control to seize power, George Washington resisted. Can you think of any leader or politician these days who would turn their back on such an opportunity to increase their power? Me neither.
I have referenced the Newburgh Conspiracy previously, but I find it so fascinating that I have to mention it again, this time in more detail. In 1783, the former soldiers of the Continental Army were becoming increasingly angry. They had not been payed their wages for years (imagine how cranky you would get!?), the government had been stalling on telling them when they would be paid and they were also appearing to renege on promises of pensions for the officers. The army had been sitting idle for a year or so (between the surrender at Yorktown, the unofficial end of the war, and Treaty of Paris which would soon mark the official end of the war) and could see the writing on the wall. They would soon be disbanded and the government would forget all about what they owed these men. So, some of the officers decided that they should use the power of the military to threaten Congress in to action. They even had established a meeting in Newburgh, New York, after a delegation lobbied Congress, where they would talk about mobilizing the angry talk into action. But the lead officer would have none of this.
George Washington caught wind of this, walked in to the meeting (to the shock of the organizers), and addressed the gathering of officers. He implored them to not abandon the principles that they had just fought for and to be patient. Which they did. I can think of no other person who would have been able to sway that room like Washington (and can think of few people who would be strong enough to resist the urge to harness that anger and use it to consolidate power by leading the army against the government.) Because he had suffered and bled along side of these men in battle, he was a credible voice and he used that voice for the good of his country.
Because of this willingness not to usurp power, he became a natural choice to lead the Constitutional Convention and then to become the first President of the United States. He is still the only candidate to receive 100% of the electoral votes and probably always will be. When the Constitution was written, there was a lot of difficulty coming up with exactly what role the president should play and what the office would look like. Amidst this ambiguity, Washington stepped in and helped to shape and form what all future presidencies would look like. For example, he was so dedicated to his country and to the concept of service, that he did not want to accept the salary that Congress was going to give him for being president. (He did eventually accept, but solely to set a good example for the future. Otherwise, the precedent would be set that president was an unpaid position that only really wealthy people could hold.)(A lot of good that had done us now, but at least he had good intentions.) He more than likely could have continued to be president until the end of his days, but he stopped after two terms, again setting the precedent for future chief executives (although this would not be formalized until much later with the 22nd Amendment.) As our first president, Washington ably navigated our young country through multiple growing pains, both foreign and domestic, and got our country off to a great and stable start.
Washington was not perfect (case in point, he was the owner of a significant number of slaves), but for leading the military effort that established our independence, selflessly turning down opportunities to rule the new nation as a dictator and for having the vision to be the ultimate chief executive officer, despite no precedent and little Constitutional guidance, George Washington is the Greatest American ever.
Not that you asked, but I would like to end this post by quickly rounding out a top 5 of Greatest Americans. So in no particular order…
Martin Luther King, Jr. – His ability to help usher in an age of racial tolerance and a semblance of equality and his ability to do it with only the power of words and force of personality make him an easy inclusion on this list.
Jane Addams – the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, a two or three sentence blurb could never fully encompass how remarkable she was and how much she affected the country in the 19th Century and beyond in a wide range of disciplines. So instead, learn more about her here and here.
Benjamin Franklin – I think that people greatly underestimate all that Ben Franklin was. Not only was he an excellent political leader and ambassador, he was one of the most well regarded scientific minds of his age as well as an inventor. To drive this point home, here is an assorted list of some of the ideas he developed: the first post office, the first fire department, the concept of electricity, bifocals, anti-counterfeit paper money. He beats out Thomas Edison here mainly because of his extras as a politician and humanitarian.
Abraham Lincoln – I feel a little bad including two presidents in the top 5, but how can you ignore his ability to navigate the difficulties of the Civil War, to not back down in the quest for righteousness and the abolition of slavery as well as myriad other issues that came up during his presidency.