February 22, 2004 -- [Published in the Washington Times.] George Washington unfortunately has become a cliché. For an older generation, he was too often treated as such a mythic figure that it was difficult to appreciate his true importance. In today’s politically correct society, many treat him as a white, male oppressor. Most of us celebrate his birthday by shopping the sales at the mall.
This is not a bad use of our time, but it is appropriate to take a moment to reflect on the real greatness of the real Washington and the moral lessons he taught us.
Washington exemplified the spirit of early America. He was in his heart and for most of his life a farmer and an innovator who developed new crops and agricultural techniques. He valued the production of wealth as a worthy goal in life. But he also understood that the freedom to produce must often be fought for.
Washington was the general who won America’s independence from Britain, one of the world’s strongest powers at the time. It was an incredible feat. In 1777, when he marched his 12,000 ragtag volunteers to winter camp at Valley Forge, their prospects were as bleak as the bitter weather. Some 2,000 men died from the brutal cold and from sickness. But the volunteers persevered in large part because of Washington, who forged them into a formidable army. He was no great orator, but he had the inspiring words of Thomas Paine read to his frozen troops: “These are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” This certainly is an appropriate epitaph for Washington and the Continental Army soldiers who ensured the survival of the United States.
Washington’s achievements reflect his outstanding moral character. He set for himself the highest standards in everything he did and thus became exemplar for his associates and his fellow countrymen. Indeed, when he presided over the Constitutional Convention, he spoke little. It was his example—the fact that the other delegates were in the presence of Washington—that kept those delegates on their best behavior and inspired them to look to the good of the country.
But Washington was not some ever-frowning moralist; he enjoyed life, whether at a dance or dinner party or just riding through his beloved Mt. Vernon estate.
Washington hardly considered himself a philosopher like his friend Thomas Jefferson. But he lived his philosophy. For example, he was born into a slave society, but his experiences in life led him to appreciate the evils of that institution. He freed his slaves at his death.
Perhaps Washington’s most important legacy was his attitude towards political power. After his victory over Britain, some suggested that he be made king of the new America. He adamantly refused. He wanted to return to his farm. In this, he followed the example of the retired Roman Senator Cincinnatus who was called away from his farm by a Senate that gave him absolute power to defeat an invading army. As general, Cincinnatus accomplished his goal in a matter of weeks and then, with total power, the esteem of his people, and an army in his hands, gave up his position and returned to his plough. Sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon’s statue in the Virginia state house, the only one Washington ever posed for, depicts him as a general setting aside his sword and returning to civilian life.
Illustrative of his deep integrity, Washington resigned from the Cincinnati Society, an organization for Revolutionary War veterans, because he feared it would create a hereditary class of nobles in the new nation. Washington believed that individuals should be honored for their own achievements, not for the achievements of their ancestors.
Washington, our first president, set the example for future presidents by limiting himself to two terms in office. He is reputed to have said, "Government is not reason, it is not eloquence—it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master." This is an understanding that too many American citizens and politicians have lost.
George Washington indeed should be honored by all Americans today as he was by Henry Lee who wrote at the time of Washington’s passing that he was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.