The Greatness of George Washington

When Donald Trump stepped on stage in his first debate, I was pretty sure that he would not only secure the Republican nomination but beat Hillary Clinton. I don’t think either choice was “great”, but in the absence of any real greatness, power and money usually wins. Hillary got Trumped and the rest is history.

Make America Great Again

America has a culture problem. Somehow, American greatness has been twisted and conflated with power, money, and a “lifestyle”. Usually, when someone says that America is a great nation, what they are actually saying is that:

  1. We win wars
  2. We make the most money
  3. We exert the most cultural influence.

I am not saying we should lose wars, or lose money, but those things aren’t intrinsically great and we need to remember that. This past summer, I read two books about greatness, both by Eric Metaxas. One was about seven great women, and the other about seven great men. I recommend both.

These books defined greatness in the most effective way possible, by telling the stories of indisputably great individuals. One of my favorites is the story of how a simple act by George Washington secured the future of our nation when everything was at stake. It wasn’t an act of power, but in may ways a vulnerable act.

Dollar Bill George

We were all taught, or should have been taught, that dollar bill George was “the man” during the Revolutionary War. However, his biggest impact was actually after the war was over.

I never knew this, but after the war ended, many thought that George Washington would become a military dictator. There had never been a president before and his stature was so great that all he had to do was say the word, and he could take power. But he didn’t. It’s rare for an ambitious man being ambitious for something other than his own power and pride.

The Newburgh Conspiracy

In March 1783, the war was over, and the morale of the continental army was terrible. Soldiers were owed years of back pay, and Congress, completely broke, was unlikely to pay up. Everyone was arguing. The soldiers were understandably angry after facing years of suffering—cold, barefoot, injured, hungry, and sick.

Taking advantage of this anger, a man named Lewis Nichola penned and circulated an anonymous letter in the town of Newburgh (hence the name of the conspiracy). He openly criticized what he felt was the the instability of all republics, calling for George Washington to name himself King.

However, it didn’t stop there. Another man named Major John Armstrong Jr. circulated a second letter, one that contained two threats: “If Congress did not guarantee back pay and commutation, the army would disband, even if the war continued (the peace treaty would not be signed until September 3, 1783). And if the peace treaty were signed , well then, the army would simply and absolutely refuse to dissolve.”

The whole country was Washington’s if he wanted it. This treason jeopardized everything that they fought for.

After learning of the conspiracies, George Washington scheduled his own meeting. On March 16 at noon, with officers gathered, Washington faced the issue head on. He laid out the facts before the men, entreating them to virtue and their sacred honor.

You can read the more of the speech here, but in short, in his speech he called them to greatness one last time. Only someone who has lived a life of greatness is worthy to do this. Power alone can’t move hearts. At the end of his speech, he announced that he had something else to read to the men. He reached into his uniform pocket and slowly pulled out a letter penned by a Virginia congressman. As he attempted to unfold it, and read it aloud, he appeared to stumble over the words. He then reached into his coat pocket to retrieve his spectacles and apologizing for the delay he said, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself going blind.”

The men were moved to tears and many were ashamed. They loved George Washington. Historians say that they looked with great affection at this aging man who had led them through so much—he suffered with them and risked everything with them. Washington read the remainder of the letter, then left without saying another word. Everyone knew in their hearts that the conspiracy was over.

George Washington eventually became the first President, instituting the two term Presidency. He could have been president for life, making it twice that he relinquished power. When told by the American artist Benjamin West that Washington was going to resign, King George III of England said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

The Paradox of Greatness 

Greatness has a paradoxical quality to it. The most kingly of kings are always the least kingly and the best leaders are always the greatest servants. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. A great person lives a life for others and that’s an act of faith, because people will let you down.

The Complexity of Greatness

Greatness also has a complexity to it, because it can’t mean perfection. If it did, no one would be great. We would all fall short, including George Washington. You see, George Washington owned slaves for his entire adult life and was on the wrong side of the issue politically. That’s hard to reconcile.

According to Metaxas, “Washington had wrestled with the issue of slavery for most of his adult life, and in July 1799, he finally made an important decision. He rewrote his will, not only freeing his slaves, but also ensuring that the young ones would be taught to read, write, and learn a trade, and that the old an infirm ones would be taken care of for the rest of their lives.”

I wonder what “normal”, yet intrinsically wrong aspects of our society will we be judged for a couple hundred of years from now? Hasn’t a global economy allowed us to distance ourselves from more modern and “sanitized” forms of slavery and abuse?

I have never owned slaves, of course, but I consume cheap goods made by exploited labor and resources in third world countries. I also benefit from inflated stock prices of these global companies. Why? Honestly, it’s convenient and socially accepted, the very reasons they probably owned slaves. Perhaps it is time for me to change as well.

To me, a large aspect of greatness is the willingness to change and to risk or give up your life for others. This is the opposite of formulaic consumption of happiness, which is what people mostly think of when pursuing a “great life”. 

It’s very disappointing that he owned slaves, but I still assert that George Washington was a great man a man whose actions paved the way the way for other great leaders like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.

Politics and American Culture

They say that politics follows culture. If that’s true, America has a serious problem to overcome.  When we get angry at politicians, we have only ourselves to blame for what we not only allow, but what we openly embrace individually and as a society. America’s problems won’t be solved with more money or more power, but with actual greatness.

In America, we are relentlessly marketed cheap greatness in the form of a “lifestyle” and we are foolishly buying it, because true greatness is really really hard and not for sale.