Although Washington was born on February 22, Congress decided in 1971 to move the legal holiday to the third Monday in February. Contrary to what it’s commonly called, its legal name really is George Washington’s Birthday. I, for one, think we could have given up the three-day weekend in appreciation and honor of our first president by continuing to remember him on February 22nd because without George Washington I doubt we would be the United States of American. Last September Matthew Spalding wrote, American Statesman: The Enduring Relevance of George Washington.
George Washington was by all accounts “the indispensable man” of the American Founding. He was the military commander who led a ragtag Continental army to victory against the strongest and best trained military force in the world. Crucial to the success of the Constitutional Convention, his personal support of the new Constitution, more than anything else, assured its final approval. His election to the presidency—the office having been designed with him in mind—was essential to the establishment of the new nation.
“Be assured,” James Monroe reminded Thomas Jefferson, “his influence carried this government.”
In Washington’s Crossing, after Americans were slaughtered in the fall of New York in November 1776, David Hackett Fischer wrote that Washington was shattered and wept at the disaster, “It was the lowest point of Washington’s long career.”1 But you know what he did? He went on. He persevered. He led the army through New Jersey into Pennsylvania, and then on Christmas night 1776, he crossed the Delaware River and fought again. David McCullough said:
Washington wasn’t chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity. . . .
Washington was not, as were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton, a learned man. He was not an intellectual. Nor was he a powerful speaker like his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry. What Washington was, above all, was a leader. He was a man people would follow. And as events would prove, he was a man whom some—a few—would follow through hell….
What Washington had, it seems to me, is phenomenal courage—physical courage and moral courage. He had high intelligence; if he was not an intellectual or an educated man, he was very intelligent. He was a quick learner—and a quick learner from his mistakes. He made dreadful mistakes, particularly in the year 1776. They were almost inexcusable, inexplicable mistakes, but he always learned from them. And he never forgot what the fight was about—“the glorious cause of America,” as they called it. Washington would not give up; he would not quit.
In The Man Who Would Not Be King, Matthew Spalding wrote:
…And the key ingredient in all of these things was moral character, something that Washington took very seriously and which gave to his decision-making a deeply prudential quality and to his authority an unmatched magnanimity. “His integrity was pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision,” Jefferson later observed. “He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.”
It is no coincidence, then, that Washington’s most important legacy comes during moments of temptation, when the lure of power was before him. Twice during the Revolution, in 1776 and again in 1777 when Congress was forced to abandon Philadelphia in the face of advancing British troops, Gen. Washington was granted virtually unlimited powers to maintain the war effort and preserve civil society, powers not unlike those assumed in an earlier era by Roman dictators. He shouldered the responsibility but gave the authority back as soon as possible.
When the war was over he rejected the idea that he should be become king. Most moving of all was his action during the Newburgh Conspiracy when some officers want to use military might to force Congress to pay the army. Alexander Hamilton and other politicians concurred. Spalding described Washington’s reaction:
But Washington would have none of it. “The Army,” he rebuked young Hamilton, “is a dangerous instrument to play with.” Instead, he responded to the unsigned papers calling for the army to stand up against the political leadership, by holding a meeting of his officers for March 15 – the Ides of March – 1783. There, Washington denounced the move as destructive of the very ground of republican government, and expressed his “utmost horror and detestation” of those who would “open the flood Gates of Civil discord, and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.” After the speech, Washington drew a letter from his pocket expressing Congress’ intention to redress the army. He hesitated, pulled out a pair of glasses and remarked, “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.” Many of the officers were in tears. If the speech had not already destroyed the movement, this remark assured its demise.
“On other occasions he had been supported by the exertions of the army and the countenance of his friends,” wrote Capt. Samuel Shaw of the episode, “but in this he stood single and alone.”
That, dear readers, is character—to stand alone and do what is right. When George Washington died, Richard Henry Lee gave the eulogy that had been written by John Marshall.
First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere—uniform, dignified and commanding—his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting…. Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues….Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
George Washington truly was the Father of Our Country.
Each year on George Washington’s Birthday, the United States Senate reads Washington’s Farewell Address. Would that they would heed his words.
Washington’s Birthday. Legal holiday. February 22. No business transacted. 3g12934u. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
1David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford University Press, New York: 2004) 113–114.
Morning Bell: George Washington’s Example on Religious Liberty.
Washington’s Farewell Address