Monday is George Washington’s 289th birthday. That is, according to the Gregorian calendar adopted in Great Britain and its colonies in the mid-eighteenth century, which delayed his original birthdate by eleven days from the Julian, or Old Style, calendar. In any case, more than two centuries have passed since the squire of Mount Vernon left the scene—and yet it’s probably fair to say that he is, to this day, more myth than man in the historical consciousness of most Americans. Why is that?
A Bundle of Contradictions
I think part of the problem stems from his public persona, as Washington deliberately sought to maintain a degree of reserve around others that made him unapproachable to many of his peers and even more so to succeeding generations. In addition, the complexity of the man raises questions about just who he really was. Notwithstanding the lengthy exploration of this subject by far more authoritative voices, I took a stab at explaining just how enigmatic GW was—albeit in a very cursory manner—in The Road to Assunpink Creek.
Here’s the pertinent excerpt (p. 181):
The paradoxical qualities to be found in the father of our country are many and varied. The Washington who in his formative years was a self-interested, sometimes brash youth and a provincial Virginian became in his wartime role a selfless leader who exhibited prudent judgment and a steady hand in the cause of his country’s independence while adopting the perspective of an ardent nationalist.
In terms of his character, Washington might be described as an individual of driving ambition but modest public persona and as someone who experienced powerful emotions but publicly maintained an aloof and dignified demeanor. As a planter, he proved to be a shrewd businessman but struggled in his quest for financial security. A demanding slaveholder, he nevertheless became the only “founding father” to free those he held in servitude. And while generally demonstrating sound judgment, he needed ample time to make decisions.
As a public figure, Washington exhibited keen political skills but is not generally regarded as an accomplished politician. Although not an intellectual, he committed himself wholeheartedly to the pursuit of certain ideas. He was a warrior who resolutely adhered to the principal of civilian control over the military, a general who lost more battles than he won but ultimately emerged victorious in America’s fight for independence, and an army commander who refused to accept a salary for his services yet kept a meticulous record of his expenses—for which he expected to be, and was, reimbursed by the Continental Congress at the end of the war. Finally, this was a leader who was used to exercising enormous power but appears to have eagerly relinquished it and in doing so demonstrated the full measure of his greatness, both when he resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army in 1783 and when he left office after serving two terms as the first president of the United States in 1797.
An Imperfect Icon
Flawed GW was—as someone who bore his share of human frailties and as a member of a generation whose notions of freedom and equality were sadly deficient by today’s standards—but no one risked more in the quest to secure America’s right to rule itself than the Continental army’s commander-in-chief. His life, property, and reputation all hung in the balance.
At a very personal level, the Revolutionary struggle was an existential one for our foremost Founding Father, for failure would have meant certain death—either on the battlefield or at the end of a British rope. Of course, one could argue that other leading Patriot advocates like John Hancock or John Adams would have faced similarly dire consequences if the war had ended badly, but perhaps they would have had a better chance to elude capture, at least in theory, and thereby escape the wrath of a vengeful Crown than would a general on the frontlines.
Historians will differ on whether or not Washington was indispensable to the success of what he termed the “Glorious Cause,” the pursuit of American independence. Still, one thing seems abundantly clear. If he was not, nobody was.