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Rediscovering George Washington
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Washington's Greatness
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Washington's Greatness

George Washington and our World

Why should young Americans who care about their country and aspire to do something worthwhile with their lives be interested in the greatness of George Washington? For at least two reasons: First, although knowing what is worthwhile and what is possible is essential to living a good life and doing some good for our country, we are not born knowing these things.

We learn these things in three ways: by experience, reflection, and study. If we are fortunate, our family and our friends provide us with examples of what is worthwhile, what is good. A hard-working father, a wise and loving mother, a friend who stands up for us in a pinch teaches us by his example. Knowing them--experiencing their goodness and reflecting upon it--is one of our most important educations. It introduces us to both what is good and what is possible, and it inspires us to be like those we love and admire.

Greatness, however, is by definition extraordinary, and what is extraordinary is by definition rare. It takes nothing away from parents or friends to say that most of us do not know personally someone with truly extraordinary gifts or capacities. And yet, it is extraordinary qualities that most clearly reveal what is good--what is the standard of excellence in any field--by revealing more clearly the limits of what is possible. We see more clearly what baseball is, so to speak, when we see Babe Ruth swing the bat--maybe now one would have to say Mark McGwire. After seeing him play--after studying him--those of us who play the game know better what to aspire to and the rest of us understand more fully the highest standards by which the game should be judged.

Like Babe Ruth or Mark McGwire, a Socrates, a Shakespeare, a Mozart, displays qualities or capacities that would have been difficult or impossible to imagine without his example. In this way, those with the greatest gifts reveal to the rest of us—they make visible—human potential that we might otherwise never have realized on our own. This means that they help reveal to us human nature itself, since we cannot understand human nature until we have some idea what human beings are capable of.

What Shakespeare is to poetry, Mozart to music, or Babe Ruth to baseball, George Washington is to life itself. He possessed and displayed in his life courage, self-control, justice, judgment and an array of other virtues in such full harmony and to such a degree, and he surmounted such great challenges in so many circumstances of war and peace, that to see how he lived his life is to see much more vividly what it means to be a man. This is by no means to say that he was flawless any more than Babe Ruth was a perfect baseball player. It is merely to say that, if he had not lived, such greatness could hardly have been believed possible.

This, then, is the first reason to be interested in the greatness of Washington.

The second reason has particularly to do with America. In the course of his life, Washington’s fate became inseparable from the fate of his country. By the time of his death he was identified in the eyes of the world with America and the cause of liberty for which America stood. His greatness was a testament to America’s promise. The significance of that testament has not diminished with time. To the contrary, for anyone who wants to understand this country and help fulfill its promise, it is, if anything, more necessary today than at any time in the past to understand the greatness of George Washington. It is still true, 200 years after it was first said by Fisher Ames in a eulogy of Washington, that "Our history is but a transcript of his claims on our gratitude."

George Washington and His World

When Washington was a mere twenty-two years old, he had already been appointed commander of the armies of Virginia (such as they were). His actions in the field had already won him notoriety in Europe and fame in Virginia. By the time he retired from military service at the age of twenty-six and returned to private life, his commanding presence, courage, resolution, incorruptible justice, and firm sense of duty were widely known throughout Virginia. Already, his destiny seemed to fellow citizens to be tied to the destiny of his "country" (that is, Virginia).

Twenty-seven of the officers who served under the young Washington presented an Address to him (December 31, 1758) upon his retirement, expressing their gratitude for his leadership and imploring him not to resign. Their youthful tribute to the youthful Washington anticipates the man whose destiny would become inseparable from the destiny of a greater country, when it called him from his private station some seventeen years later.

"In our earliest infancy, you took us under your tuition, trained us up in the practice of that discipline which alone can constitute good troops . . . . Your steady adherence to impartial justice, your quick discernment and invariable regard to merit, wisely intended to inculcate those genuine sentiments of true honor and passion for glory, . . . first heightened our natural emulation and our desire to excel. How much we improved by those regulations and your own example, with what cheerfulness we have encountered the several toils, especially while under your particular direction, we submit to yourself . . . . Judge then how sensibly we must be affected with the loss of such an excellent commander, . . . How great the loss of such a man? . . . It gives us additional sorrow, when we reflect, to find our unhappy country will receive a loss no less irreparable than ourselves. Where will it meet a man . . . so able to support the military character of Virginia? . . . In you we place the most implicit confidence. Your presence only will cause a steady firmness and vigor to actuate in every breast, despising the greatest dangers and thinking light of toils and hardships, while led on by the man we know and love."[1]

Such were the impressions and the sentiments of men who knew and served under Washington in his early twenties.

When George Washington died, on December 14, 1799, there was throughout America a profound outpouring of grief at our loss, gratitude for his life, and deep reverence for his memory. "For two months after Washington’s burial at Mount Vernon, his countrymen continuously expressed their bereavement in private correspondence, in resolutions of Congress and of State legislatures, in town meetings, in the pages of newspapers and, most singularly, in hundreds of funeral processions and solemn eulogies in every corner of the nation."[2] America’s greatest orators vied with one another to do justice to the greatness of this great man.

From the Senate of the United States: "With patriotic pride, we review the life of our Washington, and compare him with those of other countries who have been pre-eminent in fame. Ancient and modern names are diminished before him. Greatness and guilt have too often been allied, but his fame is whiter than it is brilliant. . . . Let his countrymen consecrate the memory of the heroic General Washington, the patriotic statesman and the virtuous sage. Let them teach their children never to forget that the fruit of his labors and his example are their inheritance."[3]

Congressman Henry Lee, on behalf of the House of Representatives: "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. . . . [C]orrect throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his [public] virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns."[4]

Nor were the memorials confined within American shores. "The whole range of history," wrote the editor of the Morning Chronicle in London, "does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration. The long life of General Washington is not stained by a single blot. . . . His fame, bounded by no country, will be confined to no age."[5] Even Napolean delivered a eulogy at the Temple of Mars.

Abigail Adams was right in saying: "Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy. She alone can render his fame immortal."[6] The trouble is that, where Washington’s greatness is concerned, the simple truth almost surpasses belief. But a vast variety of people at widely different times and in greatly different circumstances testified to his greatness with remarkably consistent detail. A decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we take these opinions seriously enough to seek the reasons for them.