Abigail Adams, early in the fight for independence and growing anxious in their noble cause, wrote to her husband that, “We have too many high-sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” She was most definitely not referring to George Washington.
George Washington is, by most any reckoning, the only indispensable man in American history. Physically imposing and a head taller than nearly all his contemporaries, the American leader was a “rock star” before there was such a thing. He was an athlete and a warrior – a statesman, gentleman, sage, and the very personification of virtue, all wrapped into one. He was John Wayne, Indiana Jones, and Joe Montana amalgamated. If that sounds like an exaggeration, perhaps you haven’t truly made his acquaintance.
Washington’s exploits were every bit as heroic in real life as Wayne’s and Indiana Jones’ were in fiction. His physical prowess and iron resolve were unmatched, as his friends and enemies alike would attest. There has never been a man like him nor is there likely ever to be again. We owe him no less than our freedom – and that is but a part of the ledger.
While he did not possess Jefferson’s, Franklin’s or Adam’s towering intellect, he was the master of them all. Washington literally towered over his fellow-patriots, standing 6 foot 3 1/2 inches tall (as measured by his secretary at his death) in an age when the average male was but 5 foot 7. He was rugged, even as a young boy. By the tender age of 16, Washington was already comfortable in the treacherous wilds of the American frontier, and had conducted, in the most dangerous of conditions, several of nearly 200 land surveys for wealthy landowners of Virginia. His self-control is the stuff of legend. He was all but impossible to rattle which he demonstrated time and again.
It may surprise many that, except for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington had the least amount of formal education of all the presidents who have since followed, which makes the level of knowledge and wisdom that he attained, simply mind-boggling.
As a teenager, the young and future president copied by hand and memorized 110 Rules of Civility. Originally written to denote proper behavior in the company of equals, Washington applied them to everyone he met, including his soldiers, and they loved him for it. All the stories of soldiers trudging through the snow, shoeless, with blood draining from their feet are true. They endured these extraordinary hardships and much, much more for their beloved Commander-in-chief.
With chronological distance we tend to look at the famous words “we pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” as a mere lyrical utterance. But the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, put everything on the line, their lives included, even as the ink was drying. Benjamin Franklin famously said that “we must, indeed, all hang together, or we shall assuredly, all hang separately.”
As the popular historian Stephen Ambrose writes, “[Washington] would have been brought to London, tried, found guilty of treason, ordered executed, and then drawn and quartered. Do you know what that means? He would have had one arm tied to one horse, the other arm to another horse, one leg yet to another, and the other to a fourth. Then the four horses would have been simultaneously whipped and started off at a gallop, one going north, another south, another east, and the fourth to the west.” This is what Washington was risking to establish your freedom and mine.”
No other man could command such respect and admiration. Ambrose reflects that, “Washington came to stand for the new nation and its republican virtues, which was why he became our first president by unanimous choice and, in the eyes of many, including this author, our greatest.”
Of the nine presidents who owned slaves, Washington was the only one who freed his. Like Jefferson, he could not reconcile the institution of slavery with the promise of America — a promise they, themselves made. The difference is that Washington had the courage of his convictions and, in the end, kept his promise.
Washington’s Farewell Address is one of the seminal documents in American history. Every American should read it. Never has one man held so much power, with the blessing of the people, as did Washington, only to let it go. A popular commentator once wrote of him, “the final component of Washington’s indispensability was the imperishable example he gave by proclaiming himself dispensable.” No less than George the III, after suffering defeat at his hands, admired him from afar, when he said, “If George Washington goes back to his farm, he will be the greatest character of his age.” He did just that, and he was. The heroic man retired to his farm to pick up where he left off, growing tobacco, distilling spirits, and enjoying the comforts of a life well lived.
He was larger than life but did not claim himself so. No American in his day compared to George Washington, nor has anyone ever since. His cavalry commander in the War for Independence, “Light Horse Harry” Lee summed him up this way: “He was first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Indeed he was, indeed he is.