Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Remarkable Character of George Washington

George Washington with the Marquis de Lafayette (center) and Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman, Washington's aide-de-camp, at Yorktown, by Charles Willson Peale, 1784. Washington looked upon Lafayette as a son, and the French republican was instrumental in convincing Washington that slavery was an injustice that was inimical to the principles of the new American republic.  

For about four months in 2013, I read books about George Washington and also biographies of Martha Washington. Most notable was Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. Based on the release of thousands of papers of Washington's, Chernow's book is a realistic and detailed portrait of the Commander of the Continental Army that led a rag-tag army to victory in the War of Independence and became our first President.

In his 2006 book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, historian Gordon S. Wood devotes an early chapter to Washington, titled "The Greatness of George Washington." Wood's assessment  is grounded on Washington's decision to resign from his army command at the end of the war--an action whose humility shocked the world. He also cites how Washington became increasingly repulsed by slavery and freed those slaves he owned upon his death, and praises Washington's ability to act as the first President with a vision of what he must bequeath to a future America, beyond the political demands of the moment.

Underlying the actions and vision, however, is a monumental strength of character that explains how he became the natural choice of his contemporaries to lead the Continental Army and to become the new republic's first President. As presented in the books that I read, Washington's character had these traits:

1. Extreme courage under fire. In battle he always acted without regard for his own personal safety.

2.  Extreme devotion to duty. In the course of the Revolutionary War, Washington wrote 140,000 letters and documents. Spending hour upon hour at his desk each day, he sent communications to Congress begging for supplies, wrote orders to his men and exhortations to his army, and maintained a vast correspondence with the leading supporters of the American fight for independence. His desk was the central command post for the war.

3. Consistent compassion in victory to those defeated.

4.  Discernment of the correct military strategy and adherence to the strategy against all odds. Washington led the Americans to victory against the world's most powerful military power with barely an army--a band of ill-clad, ill-fed men that was always in flux and leaving for lack of pay. His greatness and the greatness that he inspired in his generals is measured by their achievement with such meagerness of resources.

5. Willingness to change his ideas in light of new evidence. Although Washington was determined to retake New York City, when the opportunity to defeat the British in Yorktown, Virginia, emerged instead, he seized it with alacrity and redeployed his forces to seize the opening.

6. Ability and willingness to suffer personal hardship--a trait that rallied his men time and time again to stay in the army despite hardship and to wage hard-fought battles.

7. Extreme courtesy and respect toward all, but strength to exact punishment on deviants in the army that jeopardized discipline and army unity.

8. Devotion to family and love of his wife.

9.  Belief in a vision of America stretching across the continent. His dedication to this vision of America's future--the British had prohibited further western development--was the foundation of determination to win the war.

10.  Extreme determination, that brought out the same in his generals, most of whom had never had military training and acquired their military expertise by reading history and military manuals.

11. Consistent charity to the poor, indigent, and orphans. No one who came to Mount Vernon needing food or sustenance was ever turned away. Washington also took in, supported, and paid for the education of orphans in his and Martha Washington's extended family. He considered his stepchildren as his own. After he was President, anyone who showed up at the door of Mount Vernon--and everyone who was traveling in the vicinity did show up--received hospitality. The Washingtons entertained a total roster of 2,000 guests at their home, in their 13 years of married life before he became the Commander of the Continental Army.

12. Extreme sense of responsibility by which he always gave credit to others for victories and successful actions while taking responsibility himself for defeats and errors. The buck stopped with him.

13. Faith in God, a belief in Providence into whose hands he had trusted his life; this faith was the source of his courage.

14. His wariness of power, an ever-present fear that he might appear to desire power, combined with a deep humility and recognition of his own deficits.

Washington said that all he was came from his mother, a woman whom his boyhood friends said terrified them (she was tall and forbidding), even though "she was very kind."

This is not to say that George Washington did not have faults--he relied on his wife, his family, and those he trusted such as General Henry Knox, General Nathanael Greene, and his adjutant Alexander Hamilton, and within his trusted circle, he could be angry and impatient and take their devotion for granted. Although he lacked the eloquence of Jefferson, the lightning intelligence of Alexander Hamilton, the erudition and thoughtfulness of John Adams, the creativity and knowledge of Benjamin Franklin, and the rousing rhetoric of Thomas Paine, he stood physically and spiritually heads and shoulders above his countrymen. He engendered trust, he held that trust, he acted to live up to that trust at all times. He never let anyone down. For these reasons he was--as his eulogist Lightfoot Harry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee, said--"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countryman."

All Americans, especially the young, need to acquaint themselves with this man and learn from him.

1 comment:

donna macdonald said...

My man is a dealer in Revolutionary documents, paper, books. He has long told me what a remarkable man Washington was. I use to read mostly about the life of Abigail Adams and then read the recent biographies on Martha Washington. I am now devoted to her. She was a lovely woman filled with skills in the domestic arts. I find her life fascinating. My only issue is that I wish she didn't have burned the letters between she and her husband. Only one survives. But understanding her through books, I understand why she did it. Thank you for your thoughtful post.