This unedited rant was inspired by an excellent discussion regarding George Washington’s legacy. The opposite view suggested that the revered status of President George Washington (in the hearts and minds of Americans) is a case of inflated superiority and cultural brainwashing. After all, George Washington was mostly a quiet, slave-owning rich man turned convenient figurehead for the men of the First Revolution. His leadership failures and military faux pas overshadow his contributions, which were mostly circumstantial and largely based on the machinations of the other Founding Fathers… and why do we celebrate President’s Day again?
First, the fact that one of the most honorable American statesman must defended is as unconscionable as the charge that he is undeserved of the purest reverence.
… Not an empire, but a republic! A republic of laws! Not men. Gentleman, we are in the very midst of revolution! The most complete, unexpected and remarkable revolution in the history of the world! How many of the human race have ever had the opportunity to choose their system of government for themselves and their children?
I am not without apprehensions, gentleman, but the end we have in sight is more than worth all the means. I believe sirs that the hour has come…
- John Adams
Throughout history, the cult of personality has established many cultural heroes not truly worthy of their pedestal. The modern era is no different, so while we do not worship “kings” as demigods, we do still promote mere mortals to cultural divinity in the pursuit of political propaganda and cultural relativism. Given the nature of such agendas, there is wisdom in analyzing the worthiness of those we are guided to worship. Objectively, I respect the intellectual tradition of dissecting heroes for the sake of societal evolution.
However, diminishing the worthiness of President George Washington’s entire legacy because he was arguably a poor tactician is an awful attempt at historical revisionism. Measuring wartime generals against one another is often a lost endeavor. Every war of humanity is unique, and none so idyllic as to equivocate losses and wins in a precise manner. So while Washington may have been an inadequate military mastermind, his larger legacy of leadership achieved the insurmountable. Some battles were successful and some were not, but when all was said and done, Washington and the people won the war of American independence against the dominant power in the world.
As a brilliant mind once said to me in regards to this: Washington was a moderately successful military administrator, but his key strength was that unlike so many in such a parallel position (taking into account the unique circumstances of the American revolution), he utilized the power and wisdom of his subordinate tacticians and listened to them, accomplishing what he could with what he was given.
Yes, it is true that in private council and large forum he spoke very little and was sometimes described as a shy, reluctant leader. Quiet, humble leadership is a rare, honorable occurrence and some would argue that in comparison to the boisterous John Adams and tenacious Hamilton of his day, such brevity lent credence to his wisdom and his humility. To imply he was a puppet because of these strengths is absurd and shows a severe ignorance of history.
The value of a military leader is not defined strictly by their implementation of tactics, but also by their ability to charge good men into the abyss of war. The brave followed him not only because they trusted his capabilities as a general, but also because they trusted his character. They honored him with their lives and courage not because he made unrealistic promises for spoils and conquest, but because he exemplified the very best attributes in a leader: integrity, resourcefulness, dedication, magnanimity, and assertiveness.
Washington knew his own weaknesses and in uncertain times (when glory and greed could have been exploited), showed temperance instead of hubris. He valued life; he knew when to fight and when to walk away. Leadership is an opportunity to exploit ambition and world history is replete with tyrants seizing chance; power corrupts men with the noblest intentions. Washington, however, did not fall into such traps. After the drums of war were silenced Washington retired quietly, later pursuing the Presidency as a duty, not an ambition. He declined a third run rather than seizing power, proving his opposition to dictatorship and his commitment to emerging American republicanism. Actions that set the precedent for the 22nd Amendment and established a pattern not usurped until the infallible socialist demigod Franklin D. Roosevelt destroyed that tradition.
Without President Washington, America may not survived such a unique, peculiar infancy. For this reason, he naturally became a template for American leadership by not only serving his position honorably, but also by embodying the altruistic statesman in every sense of the word. The American Republic was not formed on the back of one man and his ego, nor was it exclusively facilitated by a group of warring intellectual statesman, but by collaboration from idealistic Post-Enlightenment patriots. A rare breed of men.
On the last note, Washington was no mere figurehead to his fellow Founding Fathers and to state such is as ridiculous as the initial charge I’ve wasted so much time opposing. The American statesman of the revolution were brave but uncertain, not dogmatic zealots ordering Washington to do this or that. They did, however, see the same strength of character as the masses that would eventually follow Washington to success. They, and he, saw American potential and took chances on each other at the risk of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Not personal glory, but for posterity.
I believe that all Americans should honor George Washington – as human and flawed as he was – because his leadership was beautiful and unique; a standard so noble that all American successors have fallen short. Such leaders are an example of how gentleman shake off the shackles of tyranny and I hope our generation will be so collaborative and rife with reason. Because, we, as the American people, should worry over the over-inflated legacy of Washington – who sought to listen, observe and act on wiser counsel – but the Caesar that will seize it all if given the chance.