Lexington, Virginia • February 22, 2010
Everyone knows the name of George Washington. Most of us even know two or three essential facts: he guided the Continental army to victory during the Revolution; he was the first president of the United States; our nation's capital is named for him. Beyond that, however, our view of him gets hazy, distorted by myths, misunderstandings and misinformation.
The rough outline of Washington's life is straightforward enough: He was born in Virginia on Feb. 22, 1732 (Feb. 11 under the old-style calendar). His illustrious military career included instrumental roles in both the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. His countrymen unanimously elected him president of the Constitutional Convention and first president of the United States. He lived his entire adult life at Mount Vernon, his 8,000-acre Virginia plantation on the Potomac River. Upon his death on Dec. 14, 1799, Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee eulogized him as "First in war⎯first in peace⎯and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
But how well do we really know George Washington? Here are ten essential facts.
1st. Washington was a real person.
God-like images of Washington appear on the dollar bill, in Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, and in Jean-Antoine Houdon's life-sized statue in the Rotunda of the Virginia Capitol. They are important historically and symbolically, but they make Washington seem remote and unapproachable. The real Washington was a lot like us. He was ambitious, enterprising, passionate, resolute, courageous, obstinate, vain, rash, short-fused, detailed and, yes, honest.
2d. Washington was one of the most charismatic men of his age.
Far from the humorless individual that 18th-century iconography suggests, Washington knew how to carry himself; to use his own metaphor, he was an actor on a stage. Thomas Jefferson wrote of Washington that "his deportment [was] easy, erect and noble." And at 6'2" (possibly 6'3"), Washington, a physically strong man, towered over most of his contemporaries. "You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of General Washington," wrote Abigail Adams to her husband, John, after her first introduction to Washington, "but I thought the half was not told me."
3d. Washington was a man of integrity.
He based his public service on this quality. "Integrity and firmness are all I can promise," he wrote to his former comrade-in-arms, Henry Knox, shortly before taking office as president. While Washington never confessed to the mythical lie about chopping down a cherry tree, even Thomas Jefferson, who became a political enemy, thought "he was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good and a great man."
4th. Washington was a visionary.
He learned the vastness of the American landscape during his surveying career and during the French and Indian War. Early on, he realized that the West was a land of opportunity, and he believed that the colonies had more in common with one another than with Great Britain. Washington's vision of an American nation inspired him to command the Continental army. It gave him the courage to risk his reputation by serving two terms as president. It also gave him a concern for the political and economic survival and success of America, not only for his generation but also for future citizens, whom he called "millions unborn."
5th. Washington was exceedingly practical.
He had little inclination toward philosophical ruminations; he was a man of action. Whether supplying troops, overseeing his plantations, or guiding his stepchildren and grandchildren, Washington always had in mind some practical end. This quality gave him insight into how to join his personal interests and well-being with those of the emerging nation. It also gave him the greatest moral quandary, in that he could see no way out of participating in the system of slave labor that underpinned his native Virginia. To his credit, wrestling with that quandary eventually led him to free his own slaves, although it meant dismantling his beloved Mount Vernon estate and upending the lives of his wife's slaves, to whom he could not legally grant freedom.
6th. Washington suffered great failure and loss.
He lost his father when he was 11; his half-brother and mentor when he was 20; his stepdaughter, Patsy; and his stepson, Jacky. He failed to win a British army commission, lost important battles, and survived attempts made on his life. As a president who warned against factions, his popularity waned as partisan bickering turned on him. His farms suffered through years of drought, and his western lands drained time and resources. He endured serious illnesses and was denied the wish of his final years, to "glide gently down the stream of life in tranquil retirement," when he was struck down with a sudden and fatal illness.
7th. Washington was a family man.
While he had no children of his own, he was the doting father to the two children of his wife, Martha Custis, and a loving grandfather to their offspring. He likewise took a lively interest in his nieces and nephews, the children of his five siblings, with whom he had a lasting intimacy. Washington's relationship with his mother, Mary Ball Washington, was strained, but he dutifully cared for her. And he and his wife shared a loving relationship. Though we know little of their private thoughts-Martha burned their correspondence before her death-we know that she made extended visits to her husband at his Continental army headquarters each year of the Revolutionary War and never left Washington's side during his last illness.
8th. Washington greatly valued education.
He thought his own schooling was deficient. Had his father not died when Washington was a child, perhaps he would have attended school in England like his elder half brothers. Washington eagerly supplemented that inadequate education throughout his life by keeping abreast of the latest developments in politics, agriculture, science and the arts. He was adamant that Martha's children and grandchildren would receive an appropriate education, and he financed the education of the children of siblings and friends. As president, Washington unsuccessfully proposed a national university. In his will, he bequeathed money to schools in Alexandria, Va., and Rockbridge County, Va., the latter of which formed an early endowment for Washington College (now Washington and Lee University). And of all the honors bestowed on him during his lifetime, the degrees from Harvard and other colleges pleased him most.
9th. Washington was America's "Indispensable Man."
Perhaps the American Revolution would have succeeded without George Washington. If so, the outcome would have been radically different. The war effort may have failed without his zeal and perseverance. Washington personally held together the Continental army, and no one else even came in second to connecting the chief executives of the states and the factions of the Continental Congress. After the war, as the unanimously elected president of the Constitutional Convention, he worked behind the scenes, discussing differences and forging alliances. Most importantly, Washington was there, a hands-on president. For example, when making federal appointments, he read each application and painstakingly balanced sectional and political rivalries. The reputation and popularity of this indispensable man, as his biographer James Thomas Flexner calls him, propelled him into the presidency; his own inner star, assisted by other able men, guided him through the burdens of eight years' service. Washington left office with his vision and integrity intact.
10th. Washington left us a valuable political and moral legacy.
With his coherent and sophisticated political philosophy, he set an example for his fellow citizens over the course of nearly half a century. He summed up the lessons he'd learned in his "Farewell Address to the People of the United States," with its central theme of perpetual union based on the primacy of the Constitution. He buttressed his theme with warnings to steer clear of sectional and political divisions. Washington also advised on foreign relations; on the role of religion, morality and education in public life; and on the need to protect public credit and stabilize commercial and manufacturing interests. "You should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective & individual happiness," he said, "that you should cherish a cordial, habitual & immoveable attachment to it."
As the 278th anniversary of Washington's birthday approaches, we should get to know him better. He deserves the reputation history gave him.
This piece appeared in the Feb. 22, 2010, editions of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Frank E. Grizzard Jr. is director of the Lee Family Digital Archive at Washington and Lee University. Formerly the senior associate editor at the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia, his many publications include the only reference work entirely devoted to America's first president,George! A Guide to All Things Washington, and, most recently,143 Questions & Answers About George Washington(Mariner Publishing).