Each of the Founding Fathers of the United States was talented in his own way, thus, complementing the others in establishing the homeland. One of them stands out but not for his academic knowledge in social or natural science nor his leadership skills but rather for his own dignity and the love that his countrymen felt for him. He is none other than George Washington, the military general and first president of the United States.
Compared to brilliant the talents around him, Washington was not the best: Benjamin Franklin has always been referred to as a talented scientist and investor, besides being a politician. As a scholar with profound knowledge, Thomas Jefferson was known as the “Father of the U.S. Constitution.” John Adams was called the “Colossus of Independence” for the giant role he played in helping to create the new and independent United States. The sharp mind of Alexander Hamilton was said to have laid the foundation for the U.S. economy.
Yet, none of them has garnered the respect and admiration from Americans the way Washington has. All over the United States, people deemed him to be “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” As Henry Lee, his brother in arms and father of General Robert E.Lee, put it in a moving eulogy.
Although people always gave him revered acclamations, George Washington considered himself an ordinary person, but a “great ordinary person.” He was exactly such a testament to the phrase “Humility is a great quality of leadership, which derives respect and not just fear or hatred.”
George Washington was the commander in chief of the Army who led the American militia through two wars: French and Indian War (1754-1758), and the American Revolution (1775-1787).
During the French and Indian War, Washington was still a youth in his 20s. Yet, the five years of engagement in the war did not only provide him invaluable lessons about commanding, leadership skills, and military strategies but also fostered his bravery and unwavering mind in the face of adversity and hardship.
In 1755, at the Battle of Monongahela against the attack of French and native forces, as the aide-de-camp to Major General Edward Braddock, the young Washington was the only uninjured aide that managed to survive the savage fight and help many of the surviving soldiers to effectively escape the onslaught and lead them back to the army’s reserve, thus saving them from further catastrophe.
He also succeeded in gaining recognition for the Virginia militia with the decree stating that the Virginia militia would outrank British officers of lower rank.
After the capture of Fort Duquesne that marked the victory of this war, Washington was lauded as a war hero. Yet the patriotic colonel chose to resign his military commission to spend the next 16 years on his plantation farm in Virginia.
Patriotism once again drew Washington into the American Revolution as a commander in chief.
At that time, the U.S. militia faced a scarcity of resources—amateur, poorly trained soldiers, meager food supplies, and ill-equipped facilities and weapons. In the words of General Nathanael Greene, it was “more than half-naked, and above two-thirds starved.”
Meanwhile, his opponent was the formidable army in the red military uniform of the Greatest Empire that conquered both the American and African continents. Yet Washington managed to win over them, forcing the United Kingdom to recognize America’s independence.
It is difficult to talk about the extraordinary leadership and military skills of Washington—the commander in chief of the Continental Army in only a few words. It is said that he intimidated the British even more than General Napoleon of France, who had conquered Europe. Washington was so influential that, in 1798, when he had left the political arena to retire, President John Adams still appointed him to the position of lieutenant general and Army commander of the U.S. forces to scare off the French and prevent young America from facing the risk of war imposed by another empire on the other side of the ocean.
With such fame and glory after the successful revolution, Washington was given all the credit. He gained the position of the Chief Commander. However, Washington did not care about fame, declaring: “Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action …,” (1) then calmly returned to the ranch in his hometown.
Historian Gordon Wood concludes that the greatest decision in Washington’s life was to resign as commander in chief at the height of his power. European nobility was so surprised that the British royal King George III praised Washington as “the greatest man in the world.”
Removing the mantle of commander in chief, Washington returned to his hometown in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to lead a civilian life. However, it was not to be; in 1789, he was reluctant to become president, because Americans only trusted the person who defeated the British to be their commander in chief.
To date, Washington is the only president to gain unanimous support with 100% of the electoral votes. Leaving Mount Vernon, he trudged into the office in New York. He confided in his best friend Henry Knox that he felt like “a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.”(2) The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, said that Washington “would rather be in the grave than in the present situation (as president),” and that he “would rather stay on his farm than become the king of the world.”
Despite the supreme power in his hands, Washington also faced many difficulties and challenges. It was a time between the monarchy and democracy, Americans were still in the mindset of colonists: From birth, they were taught to honor the king of England, that England was the motherland. What is independence? What is freedom? What is the federation? Only loyalty to the royal family is the meaning of life.
Washington, as a selfless servant, traveled from state to state, meeting people, listened to their wishes and transmitted the message to them rather than announcing notice from the president’s house. He acted as a leader who reached out to his people in person rather than staying aloof in residence to meet people and give them the honor that a superior gave to the commoner.
During his first term, he traveled to 13 states. The gravel roads full of potholes across America recorded his 2,400-mile journey. Wherever he went, he carried the composure of a democratic leader, nothing ostentatious nor lavish. Arriving at a town, he left his carriage on the outskirts, riding a horse into town, coming to the people as a friend, willing to walk into shabby houses to listen to people’s concerns and hopes.
President Washington became so popular that he was fervently welcome wherever he went. People still kept the old tradition, regarding the president as king; they even sang the song as greeting King George III of England: “Your Majesty comes. The hero comes. The hero comes! Blow the trumpet up, drum up, cheer up …”
In the hearts of Americans
The president deeply touched people’s hearts, so when he died, he left behind infinite grief. Americans wore mourning clothes for months to pay him tribute. On the other side of the ocean, the British Navy’s flag was flown half-mast, and Napoleon ordered 10 days of national mourning.
In many states, public works in his honor are ubiquitous. Washington Monument in the city named after him is the tallest tower of the capital. On Mount Rushmore, South Dakota still stands the giant statue of the late president. His image appears on U.S. stamps more than all other American figures combined. His name is also given to many schools as well as to countless streets in many American cities and towns.
However, while the United States remembers Washington in the most respectful and solemn ways, he chose to rest at a place that couldn’t be less simple. It is an ordinary family old vault in Mount Vernon, the place that he selected, with the instructions: “I particularly emphasize that my body should be buried privately, without any ostentatious parade nor eulogy.”
To Americans, George Washington was one of the two greatest presidents in history. That greatness is not something arrogant or aloof, but it comes from Washington’s simple and humble virtues.