We know him as the father of our country, and at one time, his peers asked him to be king. But as with most great leaders, George Washington became great through personal discipline, adherence to a moral code and an unwavering sense of purpose. He was a man who consistently sought the counsel of others and declared himself unfit for the formidable tasks of leading a new nation. Today, we know better.
“Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak and esteem to all.”
Washington was born in 1732 to a Virginia planter and was the fifth generation of his family born in the colonies. He was the model of a young Virginia gentleman, placing manners and morals above selfish desires. When he was 16, he copied out 110 “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior,” based on a set written by French Jesuits in 1595. He seemed determined to present the best possible face in public and private life.
This kind of self-discipline made him perfectly suited for the military, and he joined the British colonial army as a lieutenant colonel. At 22, he fought in the first skirmishes of the French and Indian War. His early displays of leadership were lacking, and poor decisions led to the deaths of some of his men. He left the military but returned six months later to serve as an aide to Gen. Edward Braddock. When Braddock was mortally wounded during a surprise attack, young Washington took command. During the fighting, four musket balls ripped through his coat and two horses were shot out from under him, yet he survived. His composure under extreme pressure became legendary.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.”
After a few years in military service, Washington retired and married the widow Martha Dandridge Custis, welcoming her two young children as his own. He managed the family plantation, Mount Vernon, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses. As a planter, Washington did business with British merchants, who for several years had sent inferior merchandise in exchange for crops. In addition, royal regulations aimed at reducing British debt, such as the Stamp Act of 1765, hampered his ability to conduct a decent trade.
He felt exploited by dishonest merchants and treated as a second-class citizen by the British. Despite military retaliation against disobedience, Washington began to speak out and soon was considered one of the foremost opponents to the increasingly unwelcome British rule.
“The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army. Our cruel and unrelenting enemy leaves us only the choice of brave resistance, or the most abject submission. We have, therefore, to resolve to conquer or die.”
In May 1775, the Second Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia. Washington was among the Virginia delegates and was the only member who attended the meetings in his full military uniform. He was soon elected commander in chief of the Continental Army.
By July, Washington was in command of troops. The campaigns were grueling, and Washington was alternately elated with victory and downhearted at defeat. “If I were to put a curse on my worst enemy, it would to be to wish him in my position now,” he wrote after the fall of Fort Washington in 1776. “I just do not know what to do. It seems impossible to continue my command in this situation, but if I withdraw, all will be lost.”
After years of fighting, and thanks to aid from the French and due in large part to Washington’s strategy, the British army under Gen. Cornwallis was besieged and forced to surrender at Yorktown in 1781.
“A slender acquaintance with the world must convince every man, that actions, not words, are the true criterion of the attachment of his friends, and that the most liberal professions of good will are very far from being the surest marks of it.”
Although Washington expressed his desire to simply retire to his beloved Mount Vernon after the Revolutionary War, he felt compelled by duty to take action to stabilize the new nation. The Articles of Confederation were not sufficient to govern the country, so he mobilized the meeting of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. Upon ratification of the new constitution, Washington was unanimously elected as the first president of the United States of America.
“Observe good faith and justice towards all Nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.”
“As the first of every thing, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” Washington wrote to James Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” As the first president, Washington based his governance and policies on his moral code, placing respect for other nations and loyalty to justice above his self-interest. His leadership experience had taught him the benefit not only of leading by example, but also of seeking counsel of other wise men. He allowed Congress a wide berth in establishing policy and encouraged the careful selection of justices. When dealing with postwar diplomacy, Washington kept a neutral stance, leaning neither toward America’s revolutionary allies, the French, nor toward its former rulers, the British. He insisted that a more impartial approach led to increased U.S. power and influence.
“Every post is honorable in which a man can serve his country.”
Washington served as president for two terms and stepped down in early 1797. He lived a peaceful three years at Mount Vernon before passing away in December 1799. Around the world, he was honored with eulogies and newspaper memorials. The United States mourned him for months, staging long funeral processions in towns and cities throughout the country.
In the Senate, a statement was read summing up the feeling of the new nation: “With patriotic pride, we review the life of our Washington, and compare him with those of other countries who have been preeminent in fame. Ancient and modern names are diminished before him. Greatness and guilt have too often been allied, but his fame is whiter than it is brilliant…. Let his countrymen consecrate the memory of the heroic Gen. Washington, the patriotic statesman and the virtuous sage. Let them teach their children never to forget that the fruit of his labors and his example are their inheritance.”