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June 27, 2017

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George Washington: Today’s Indispensable Man
Forrest McDonald - 02/16/09
Washington Monument

From the archives of Intercollegiate Review (30:02, Spring 1995)

The men who established the American republic were acutely aware that they lived in a pivotal era in human history, and they eagerly rose to the occasion. They were all impelled by a love of liberty, but a large number were, in addition, driven by a desire for immortal Fame—the grateful remembrance of a distant posterity. To put it simply, they wanted to remain alive and be cherished in your memory and mine. It may be that the Founders were as unlucky in their choice of posterity as they were lucky in their choice of time in which to live, for the American people are notoriously lacking in a knowledge of the past.

But until Goals 2000 ensures that our children will learn nothing of our past, we still can assume that there is one American of the Founding generation whose name everybody knows: George Washington. And yet, knowledge of just what he did is far from widespread. Beyond the cherry tree episode (which never happened) and the fact that he was the first President, most Americans do not know why they should remember and cherish him. What I propose to do is to describe what he was like and thereby help us cherish his memory.

Let us begin with an overview. No historian doubts that Washington was the Indispensable Man of the epoch. By sheer force of character he created the Continental Army and held it together, under extremely adverse circumstances, for the eight years it took to win independence. His awesome prestige created the atmosphere in which the Philadelphia Convention of 1787 could draft a constitution that the states would ratify; and it is certain that the office of president was created only because he was available to fill it. Moreover, he never abused or sought to aggrandize his power, and he voluntarily surrendered power when a job was done, though he might easily have held it for life.

On the opposite hand, no scholar who has studied Washington would maintain—as schoolchildren used to be taught—that the man was flawless. As a soldier he was capable of rashness and poor judgment. He was addicted to gambling, indulged in a good deal of wenching, and was said to be a “most horrid swearer.” He was vain, a bit pretentious, and hot tempered; and though he was a perfect gentleman in public, he was sometimes not in private.

Yet he was respected, admired, even revered by his countrymen, and he was the most trusted man of the age. What is more, and different, he was the most trustworthy man. Why he was so trusted, and came to be so trustworthy—in revolutionary circumstances of a kind that almost invariably breed Caesars, Cromwells, Castros, and Stalins—are questions that must be examined if we are to understand Washington’s true legacy.

In regard to his being trusted, it is easy to overlook a crucial ingredient, that Americans sorely needed someone to trust. Partly this need arose from the perilousness of the undertaking on which they embarked in 1776. They had no way of knowing whether they would be founders or failures: the winners in such circumstances are called Patriots, the losers are hanged as traitors. But there is more to it than that. Difficult as it may be to imagine, Americans were a monarchical people, a people who loved their kings. George III had been especially beloved, and when he betrayed Americans by making war on them, they reacted by embracing republicanism and by refusing to entrust executive power to anyone. And yet the craving for a symbol to embody the nation remained. In this diverse new entity—the United States of America—it was not enough to have leaders, no matter how virtuous or capable; there had to be one above all others. As Americans had earlier referred to George III as “The Father of His People,” they now needed someone to call “The Father of His Country,” if there were to be a country, and not thirteen separate countries.

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