As we observe the trainwreck of leadership in this country–from Obama, Boehner and Christie on down, it is also fitting on “President’s Day,” that we take a look at the greatest President of them all.
Thursday is George Washington’s Birthday again. The time when we remember the first leader and the best. It is instructive to look at our first leader, George Washington, the father of our nation.
The Jacob Purdy House, a National Historic Site, was built c. 1721, and served as Washington’s Headquarters both during the Battle of White Plains, on October 28, 1776 and again in 1778.(Photo, WPCNR NEWS ARCHIVE)
One cannot help be reminded of the snowy winter at Valley Forge, when the bedraggled, poorly equipped rebel army suffered but held together, and attacked the Hessians in Trenton on Christmas Eve, 1776, crossing the Delaware River at night. What kind of man was he that George Washington could inspire his troops against all odds?
Washington was a man of tremendous character.
Where did he get this character? He specialized in self-control at an early age. That congressmen, lobbyists, and pundits means mind-control, reason and responsibility.
Reenacters Marching to Raise Old Glory at Purdy House in Honor of George Washington’s Birthday. Photo, 2003 WPCNR News Archive.
According to The American President, Washington, at sixteen, had formed a code of conduct. He had written a book of etiquette with 110 “maxims” to guide his conduct in matters. In this etiquette book he had written,
Every action done in company ought to be done with a sign of respect to those who are not present. Sleep not when others speak; sit not when others stand; speak not when you should hold your peace; walk not when others stop;…Let your countenance be pleasant but in serious matters somewhat grave…Undertake not what you cannot perform but be careful to keep your promise.
The character sketch provided by the authors of The American President, indicates this personal “rulebook” was a book that Washington wrote over the years and referred to it often,
“for self-control, to avoid temptation, to elude greed, to control his temper. Reputation was everything to him. It had to do with his strength, his size, his courage, his horsemanship, his precise dress, his thorough mind, his manners, his compassion. He protected that reputation at any cost.”
Earning respect by example. Quelling rebellion with a few words.
Washington inspired by example. He lived with his troops. He shared hardships with them, and there was so much respect for him that he was able to talk them out of armed rebellion at the end of the American Revolution. Washington had been asked by the army to join them to overthrow the Continental Congress, and make himself King.
Washington had been asked by one of the officers of the rebels to join them, and he wrote them,
You could not have found a person to whom your schemes are more disagreeable. Banish these thoughts from your mind.
Hearing that the rebels who were planning insurrection against the new country due to not having been paid by the Continental Congress, Washington rode to Newburgh, New York, on March 15, 1783, to meet with the dissident insurgents. Washington spoke to the rebellious group, saying,
“Gentlemen, as I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common Country; as I never left your side one moment, but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your Distresses…it can scarcely be supposed …that I am indifferent to your interests. But…this dreadful alternative, of either deserting our Country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our Arms against it…has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts from the idea…I spurn it, as every Man who regards liberty…undoubtedly must.”
The would-be rebels fell silent, digesting what he had said. Then Washington withdrew a letter from Congress, but could not read the text, withdrawing some eyeglasses from his tunic, remarking,
“Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
The men present were reported to have tears in their eyes at this gesture of Washington’s and abandoned their plot out of respect for their leader.
Washington retired from the military, surprising the entire new country. His action surprised King George III of England, who was astonished that Washington had refused to hold on to his military authority and use it for political or financial gain. The defeated King of England, remarked, “If true, then he is the greatest man in the world.”
Seeker of Diverse Views
As President, George Washington invented the Presidential Cabinet, whom he referred to as “the first Characters,” persons who possessed the best reputations in fields and areas of the jobs he was filling. Washington said on political appointments, “My political conduct and nominations must be exceedingly circumspect. No slip into partiality will pass unnoticed…”
Washington tolerated the relentless clashes between Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, and Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, but lectured them on the necessity for tolerance and moving beyond partisanship:
“I believe the view of both of you are pure, and well meant. Why then, when some of the best Citizens in the United States, Men…who have no sinister view to promote, are to be found, some on one side, some on the other…should either of you be so tenacious of your opinions as to make no allowances for those of the other? I have great esteem for you both, and ardently wish that some line could be marked out by which both of you could walk.”
The Constitution Should be Protected
When George Washington left office after two terms, he made a farewell address which warned future generations of Americans about foreign entanglements and partisanship in the republic:
I shall carry to my grave the hope that your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual; that the Constitution may be sacredly maintained; and that free government…the ever favorite object of my heart…will be the happy reward of our mutual cares, labors and dangers.”
Washington died in 1800, three years after leaving office in 1797. He was saluted on the floor of congress as being “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
He was the first and best.
Note: The American President By Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III, and Peter W. Kunhardt (Riverhead Books. Penguin-Putnam, Inc.,1999) is the source for this information on George Washington.