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Rediscovering George Washington
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Introduction
Washington's Greatness
Appearance & Reality
Qualities of Mind & Character
Qualities of Mind & Character

George Washington the Man

Countless witnesses attest that, however astonishing Washington’s many particular qualities of mind and character might be, the sum was even greater than the parts: The whole man somehow magnified the individual virtues of which he was composed. His courage, energy, high principles, and steadfastness; his impartial justice and utter trustworthiness; that he was calm in the face of danger and dauntless in adversity; that he would sacrifice repose for fame and fame to duty; his thoroughness in deliberation and mastery over his strong passions—these and his other distinguishing characteristics, laudable in themselves, are elevated still further as they are harmonized in the mind and character of Washington.

The two verbal portraits of Washington that follow draw together several of the most widely noted qualities of Washington’s mind and character into pictures of the man himself as he acted on the stage of America’s destiny. These portraits are drawn by knowledgeable contemporaries. One is a public eulogy by a Massachusetts Federalist—Fisher Ames; the other a private letter by a Virginia Republican—Thomas Jefferson.

Selections from Fisher Ames’ Eulogy of Washington, February 8, 1800[14]

Commemorating Washington’s life, Fisher Ames spoke of Washington as one of "that small number" of men "who were no less distinguished for the elevation of their virtues than the luster of their talents. . . who were born, and who acted through life as if they were born, not for themselves, but for their country and the whole human race."

Echoing the young officers who served with Washington in his youth, Ames said that, even as a young man, Washington had "acquired a maturity of judgment, rare in age, unparalleled in youth. Perhaps no young man had so early laid up a life’s stock of materials for solid reflection, or settled so soon the principles and habits of his conduct. . . ."

Speaking of Washington’s five year service (aged 21 to 26!) as commander of the army of Virginia, Ames says: "[A]t a time when youth is almost privileged to be rash, Virginia committed the safety of her frontier, and ultimately the safety of America, not merely to his valor, for that would be scarcely praise, but to his prudence. . . ."

From his earliest days, then, "[t]he soul of Washington [was] exercised to danger; and on the first trial, as on every other, it appeared firm in adversity, cool in action, undaunted, self-possessed. . . .

"We have seen him display as much valor as gives fame to heroes, and as consummate prudence as insures success to valor; fearless of dangers that were personal to him, hesitating and cautious when they affected his country; preferring fame before safety or repose, and duty before fame. . . . ."

In the great crises of the American revolution and founding, "some man was wanting who possessed a commanding power over the popular passions, but over whom those passions had no power. That man was Washington. Consider, for a moment, what a reputation it was, in 1789; such as no man ever before possessed by so clear a title, and in so high a degree. His fame seemed in its purity to exceed even its brightness. Office took honor from his acceptance, but conferred none. Ambition stood awed and darkened by his shadow. . . .

"This is not exaggeration; never was confidence in a man and a chief magistrate more widely diffused, or more solidly established. . . .

"The best evidence of reputation is a man’s whole life. We have now, alas! all Washington’s before us. . . . When it is comprehended, it is no easy task to delineate its excellences in such a manner as to give to the portrait both interest and resemblance; for it requires thought and study to understand the true ground of the superiority of his character over many others, whom he resembled in the principles of action, and even in the manner of acting. But perhaps he excels all the great men that ever lived, in the steadiness of his adherence to his maxims of life, and in the uniformity of all his conduct to the same maxims. These maxims, though wise, were yet not so remarkable for their wisdom as for their authority over his life; for if there were any errors in his judgment, (and he discovered as few as any man,) we know of no blemishes in his virtue. He was the patriot without reproach; he loved his county well enough to hold his success in serving it an ample recompense. Thus far self-love and love of country coincided; but when his country needed sacrifices that no other man could or perhaps would be willing to make, he did not even hesitate. This was virtue in its most exalted character. . . .

"His preeminence is not so much to be seen in the display of any one virtue as in the possession of them all, and in the practice of the most difficult. Hereafter, therefore, his character must be studied as a model, a precious one to a free republic.

"His prudence was consummate, and seemed to take the direction of his powers and passions; for as a soldier, he was more solicitous to avoid mistakes that might be fatal, than to perform exploits that are brilliant; and as a statesman, to adhere to just principles, however old, than to pursue novelties; and therefore, in both characters, his qualities were singularly adapted to the interest, and were tried in the greatest perils, of the country. His habits of inquiry were so far remarkable, that he was never satisfied with investigating, nor desisted from it, so long as he had less than all the light that he could obtain upon a subject, and then he made his decision without bias.

"This command over the partialities that so generally stop men short, or turn them aside in their pursuit of truth, is one of the chief causes of his unvaried course of right conduct in so many difficult scenes, where every human actor must be presumed to err. If he had strong passions, he had learned to subdue them, and to be moderate and mild. If he had weaknesses, he concealed them, which is rare, and excluded them from the government of his temper and conduct, which is still more rare. If he loved fame, he never made improper compliances for what is called popularity. The fame he enjoyed is of the kind that will last forever; yet it was rather the effect, than the motive, of his conduct. . . .

"Such a citizen would do honor to any country. The constant veneration and affection of his county will show, that it was worthy of such a citizen. . . ."


Thomas Jefferson remembered Washington fourteen years after his death, in a letter of January 2, 1814, to Dr. Walter Jones.[15]

". . . I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly; and were I called on to delineate his character, it should be in terms like these.

"His mind was great and powerful, without being of the very first order; his penetration strong, though, not so acute as that of a Newton, Bacon, or Locke; and as far as he saw, no judgment was ever sounder. It was slow in operation, being little aided by invention or imagination, but sure in conclusion. Hence the common remark of his officers, of the advantage he derived from councils of war, where hearing all suggestions, he selected whatever was best; and certainly no General ever planned his battles more judiciously. But if deranged during the course of the action, if any member of his plan was dislocated by sudden circumstance, he was slow in re-adjustment. The consequence was, that he often failed in the field, and rarely against an enemy in station, as at Boston and York. 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. For his 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. . . .

"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. . . .

"I felt on his death, with my countrymen, that ‘verily a great man hath fallen this day in Israel.’"


[1]James Thomas Flexner, George Washington: The Forge of Experience (1732-1775) (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1965), 222. Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, Volume Two (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1948), 380-381.

[2] John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, George Washington, Volume seven: First in Peace (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 648.

[3] Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Tributes to Washington, Pamphlet No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1931), 21.

[4] The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States. Sixth Congress (Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1851), 1310-1311.

[5] John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, George Washington, Volume seven: First in Peace (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 648.

[6] John Alexander Carroll and Mary Wells Ashworth, George Washington, Volume seven: First in Peace (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957), 653.

[7] Marquis de Chastellux, Travels in North America in the years 1780, 1781, and 1782, Vol 1, trans. Howard C. Rice, Jr. (Williamsburg: Institute of Early American History and Culture, 1963), 113.

[8] James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (New York: Signet, 1984), 123.

[9] Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Tributes to Washington, Pamphlet No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1931), 6-7. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (New York: Signet, 1984), 37-39.

[10] James Thomas Flexner, GeorgeWashington in the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1968), 40.

[11] James Thomas Flexner, GeorgeWashington in the American Revolution (Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1968), 12-13.

[12] Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Tributes to Washington, Pamphlet No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1931), 7.

[13]Albert Bushnell Hart, ed., Tributes to Washington, Pamphlet No. 3 (Washington, D.C.: George Washington Bicentennial Commission, 1931), 7-8.

[14] Works of Fisher Ames, ed. William B. Allen, Volume 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1983), 519-538.

[15] Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill Peterson (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 1318-1321.