George Washington: America’s Most Indispensable Man
February 22nd will represent 270 years since the birth of George Washington. Throughout most of America’s history, we have held this man and his message in such esteem that significant celebrations were proclaimed by presidents, governors, and mayors across the land. Most of the celebrations included the reading of Washington’s Farewell Address, one of the most powerful and meaningful political speeches ever given. For example:
To the general public during Abraham Lincoln’s administration:
- “It is recommended to the people of the United States that they assemble in their customary places of meeting for public solemnities on the 22d day of February instant and celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Father of his Country by causing to be read to them his immortal Farewell Address.”
To the Army and Navy during Abraham Lincoln’s administration:
- “Resolved, That the President of the United States, Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, be requested to direct that orders be issued for the reading to the Army and Navy of the United States of the Farewell Address of George Washington, or such parts thereof as he may select, on the 22d day of February instant.”
In the United States Senate:
- “On February 22, 1888, Senator John Ingalls of Kansas became the first senator to read George Washington’s Farewell Address before the Senate. By 1896, the reading had become a regular annual event. As of 1989, ninety-five senators had delivered the address, with the assignment alternating between the two political parties. At the conclusion of each reading, the appointed senator inscribes his or her name in a black, leather-bound book maintained by the secretary of the Senate.”
To the people of the United States during the Reagan administration:
- “Now, Therefore, I, Ronald Reagan, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim February 22, 1982, as a Day of National Celebration of the two hundred and fiftieth Anniversary of the Birth of George Washington. I urge the people of the United States, in their homes, schools, and places of work, to join me in commemorating the birth of George Washington by reflecting on the character and accomplishments of this great man and his incalculable contributions to the establishment of this Nation. Let us rededicate ourselves to the fulfillment of his ideals and his faith in the people and resources of the United States.”
Since 1983, when the celebration of Washington’s Birthday as a national holiday was combined with all other presidents under the title Presidents’ Day much of the emphasis on Washington’s words and ideals has disappeared. While it is true we can still read them, unless there is a constant reminder to people, eventually it fades from our memories and becomes rather obscure. Somehow, it seems we have done a great injustice to the memory of George Washington, a man who would have answers to today’s problems if we were but to listen.
The remainder of this letter contains the words of Jay Parry, which he penned as preface to NCCS’s classic biography, The Real George Washington. It is fitting that during February, all Americans renew their acquaintance with the remarkable Father of our Country.
“There is properly no history; only biography,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson.
If that is true of the general run of mankind, it is particularly applicable to George Washington. The story of his life is the story of the founding of America. His was the dominant personality in three of the most critical events in that founding: the Revolutionary War, the Constitutional Convention, and the first national administration. Had he not served as America’s leader in those three events, all three would likely have failed. And America as we know it today would not exist.
Washington’s contributions were clear to his contemporaries. He was called “The Father of His Country” as early as 1779, in Francis Bailey’s Lancaster Almanac. Those who knew him well joined in the praise. Benjamin Rush, a Congressman who served with Washington, wrote in 1775, “General Washington…seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom Providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin….There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.”
Francis Hopkinson, one of Washington’s military aides, wrote: “To him the title of Excellency is applied with particular propriety. He is the best and greatest man the world ever knew….He retreats like a General, and attacks like a Hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry, he would have been worshipped as a God.”
And Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1782, long before the Constitutional Convention and Washington’s presidency, “[Washington’s] memory will be adored while liberty shall have votaries, whose name shall triumph over time, and will in future ages assume its just station among the most celebrated worthies of the world.”
That high regard for Washington-and fascination with his life-has continued through the years, as reflected in the numerous studies done by both historians and journalists. A survey of the current Books in Print, which lists all available books from major publishers in the United States, reveals that more than one hundred studies of Washington’s life and place in history are presently in print. Literally thousands more, now out of print, can still be found on the shelves of libraries across the country. Added to that total are the many collections of Washington’s writings, which come in the aggregate to more than eighty volumes.
Washington has been scrutinized and analyzed from every direction. Authors and scholars have looked at his private life, his religious life, his skills as a farmer, his military accomplishments, his ability as President. Complete volumes have been devoted to subjects as diverse as Washington’s childhood, foreign policy, and role in forming the Constitution. Some researchers have written for very special interests, producing books on Washington’s chinaware, his involvement in Masonry, and the music in his family. Other volumes discuss Washington and money, Washington and the law, Washington and the theatre, Washington as an employer and importer of labor, and Washington’s pedigree.
Some have delighted in digging for dirty refuse in the rubble of history, seeking for ways to discredit our first President. Some have implied that Washington was improperly enamored of his best friend’s wife, Sally Fairfax. Others have claimed that General Washington padded his Revolutionary War expense account, enriching himself while his country suffered impending bankruptcy.
Washington could swear a violent blue streak, they say. Washington took pleasure in the charms at his slave quarters. Washington was stern, humorless, ice cold. Such are the claims of some authors who take more pains to seek (or manufacture) Washington’s foibles and failures than they take to learn who he really was.
In the face of the truth, such accusations turn to dust. As biographer James Thomas Flexner put it, “Most of the brickbats now being thrown at Washington are figments of the modern imagination.”
Who was the real George Washington? What was he really like? To find the answers to those questions, we have gone to the best source available, to the person who knew him best: Washington himself. Rather than analyze and dissect the man until nothing remains but faulty interpretations, we have told his story in simple terms, allowing him the privilege to present himself throughout.
The evidence leaves no doubt that Washington the man is entirely worthy of Washington the myth. Douglas Southall Freeman concluded the same after some nine years spent in researching and writing six volumes on Washington’s life. In an introduction to the sixth volume, Dumas Malone wrote: “By the slow and painstaking processes of scholarship [Freeman] examined, verified, and preserved a major legend ….
Some may have wondered then [during Washington’s life] and some may wonder now if the man could have been as irreproachable, as inflexibly just, as dedicated a patriot as he seemed to be. The verdict of the scrupulous historian after years of unremitting inquiry is that, as nearly as can be in human life, the legend and the man were identical.”
Historian James Flexner, who wrote five volumes on Washington’s life, came to a similar conclusion. Washington, he wrote, truly was “a great and good man.” He added, “In all history, few men who possessed unassailable power have used that power so gently and self-effacingly for what their best instincts told them was the welfare of their neighbors and all mankind.’
In order to fully present both the life and thought of George Washington, we have divided this volume into two parts. Part I consists of the biography, and Part II contains selected quotations from Washington’s writings and speeches. Together they provide a more meaningful and more complete portrait of George Washington. In both sections the passages quoted from Washington are carefully documented from original sources. A number of the sources for Part I, which are found in the Notes and References section, are accompanied by further explanatory material and editorial comments.
This book is published by the National Center for Constitutional Studies, an educational foundation dedicated to teaching Americans the principles of freedom in the tradition of our Founding Fathers. The AMERICAN CLASSIC SERIES, of which this volume is a part, is designed to help Americans understand and appreciate the Founders and the remarkable system of free government which they gave us.
The political economic, and social challenges currently facing the United States have sparked an urgent and widespread search for “modern solutions.” Ironically, the solutions have been readily available for more than two hundred years in the writings of our Founding Fathers. A careful analysis of recent U.S. history reveals that virtually every serious problem now confronting American society can be traced to a departure from the sound principles taught by these great statesmen. The citizen of today who turns to the Founders’ writings is often surprised by their timeless relevance-and reminded that the self-evident truths which made us the freest and most prosperous country on earth can, with renewed attention, be put back to work again.
It is our earnest hope that the AMERICAN CLASSIC SERIES will prove to be an inspiration and a valuable resource to those who believe that this nation can yet fulfill its “manifest destiny” as a bulwark of freedom in the world.
As a thank you for your continuing support of NCCS and to promote the celebration of the Washington’s birth, NCCS is making The Real George Washington available at a special price during the month of February.
May God bless the memory of George Washington.