Originally published in Flourishing February 2012.
George Washington, born in Virginia on February 22, 1732, has often been referred to as America’s indispensable man.
Like the other Founding Fathers, Washington was a child of the eighteenth century Age of Enlightenment. That period was influenced by the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and Enlightenment thinkers applied scientific reasoning to human nature, society, and religion. Politically, the result was an emphasis on personal liberty and individual rights, republicanism, and religious tolerance.
The Founding Fathers had a vision of America as the land of responsible, independent, hard-working citizens, prospering in a system of political and economic freedom. George Washington believed thatAmerica would become a beacon of liberty and justice to men everywhere. And, for most of two hundred and twenty-five years, it has been.
George Washington developed his personal code of conduct through hard work, the embrace of military and entrepreneurial risk, and constant study. By the time of the revolutionary crisis in 1775, he had already achieved military, business, and social success. More importantly, he had achieved the strength of character for which he became justifiably famous.
By the time he was forty, George Washington was a man who had earned a serene confidence in his own judgment. He had developed a principled and iron-willed moral conviction. By 1775, all the personal prerequisites of great leadership were present. When George Washington then stepped onto the world stage – and from that time to the end of his life – he displayed his virtues to the world, the greatest of which was the integrity that was to place him first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. George Washington’s integrity was on display, relentlessly and without interruption, from the time he accepted command of the colonial army in 1775 until the end of his life in 1799.
At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, Washington arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts to find a sick and unruly army looking out on a Boston harbor filled with British warships. Six months later, by determination, discipline, and his personal example, he had created an army that was well organized and prepared to attack from a commanding height. The British, seeing the vulnerability of their position, quietly withdrew their ships.
Not long after, on a cold and wet Christmas night, Washington led his small and desperate army silently across the Delaware River to temporarily again turn the tide of war in favor of the Americans.
Throughout his military career,Washington led his men into battle fearlessly, frequently riding into enemy fire ahead of them. Often sporting bullet holes in his hat and tunic, he was a constant inspiration to his young, poorly clothed, and often unpaid and undernourished soldiers.
Then, at the end of the war, he remained true to his values, even as – after victory at Yorktown—he was showered with praise. His officers even urged him to declare himself America’s new king. He calmly quelled the idea on the strength of his character alone. And later, through two reluctant presidential terms,Washington’s every act underscored his commitment to Liberty and republican government.
A man like this, who is able to hold to a principled course of action, to pursue his values relentlessly, without compromise, and to do so under duress, deserves our deepest respect. And even more, I think, George Washington was a man who truly deserves our reverential awe.
This Presidents’ Day and forevermore, let’s honor the integrity of America’s indispensable man by honoring and defending what he fought for: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. mh