George Washington --- First in the Hearts of His Countrymen
It is a forgotten fact that the first four out of five presidents of these United States were Virginians --- George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Today they are glossed over in history classes; their great deeds ignored; their courage diminished; their honor trampled; their names defamed by the ignorant. They were, however, the giants who walked this land and taught a young country what duty, honor, country, and self-government meant. They taught many people of different nationalities, backgrounds, religions, sectional prejudices, how to become one people. They taught people how to walk together. The older folk refer to them as the Founding Fathers. But among themselves, the Founding Fathers called only one, Father --- George Washington. He was surely a giant among giants.
George Washington like all men was not perfect. But, unlike all men, he was able to control his weaknesses --- a violent temper being one of them --- and develop his character. He had only attained a grade school education, but by his hard work and persistence had become an accomplished surveyor and by his death had some 900 volumes in his library. Not being the most formally educated man, he did, nevertheless, by relying heavily on his friends, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, and Benjamin Franklin, become an astute political leader. His physical stature --- 6 foot, 2 inches, 175 pounds --- commanded attention when he entered a room. He was a Colonel in the militia during the French and Indian War, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army during the entire War of Independence, presiding President of the Continental Congress (the American Revolution), and President of these United States for two terms. George Washington was the focal point of this country for twenty-four years. No one since George Washington has ever matched that feat nor given this country a truer or more consistent direction.
Toward the end of the War for Independence, when an unpaid Continental Army was talking mutiny and marching on Congress, of all the Founding Fathers and political leaders, only George Washington could stand before the officer corps and say: "I have like you tasted humiliation and defeat....I have like you savored hard won victories....I have like you slept on the hard, cold ground....I have like you been on horseback three days at a time without sleep....I who have never left your side for these six years." And then he began speaking of "we" and the "unborn millions." He spoke of what they were fighting for. He spoke of duty, honor, and country and they listened with tears in their eyes. There was no mutiny. No one marched on Congress. Instead, they marched to Yorktown and a young country was born.
When Benjamin Franklin was trying to organize a Continental Congress after the War for Independence, to form a more perfect union, because the Articles of Confederation had been a failure, he was at first unsuccessful. He then called on his friend, George Washington, to help convene a Congress to strengthen the government. The rest is history. A Congress was convened. The Constitution of these United States was written, debated, signed, amended, and ratified. Without Washington presiding over the Continental Congress, it is doubtful that this could have been accomplished. His very presence said to the delegates that this was something that had to be done. A young country was learning to crawl.
The next problem for the young country was to teach it how to walk. Who would teach them? Everyone knew it had to be Washington. He was offered "President for Life." He refused and said there must be an election. He was elected President unanimously for both his first and second term. It was during his second term when he taught the country how to walk. The crisis developed over a tax (what else?). Congress had passed a tax on whiskey. The result was the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania (the backwoods country in that day). Washington assembled the militia from the surrounding four states and marched into Pennsylvania. The rebellion was subdued. Returning to the capital, Washington through speeches and pamphlets told his fellow citizens that if they disagreed with legislation passed by duly elected representatives, their recourse was to petition their representatives to change the legislation. A young country was learning how to walk.
George Washington was not a man of many words. Benjamin Franklin said that General Washington always got to the point and quickly.
During his Farewell Address, George Washington said:
"At this auspicious period, the United States came into existence as a Nation, and if their Citizens should not be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own."
Modern translation: "It's easy to lose your freedom, make sure you don't."
Did Washington think these United States of America would work? He wasn't sure. He was a student of history. He knew that Greek democracy failed and that the Roman Republic had succumbed to the Roman Empire and dictatorship. He knew that when the Roman Republic lost its virtue, it slid into empire. He knew that if these United States of America could maintain its virtue, it would last. If it couldn't maintain its virtue, it, too would slide down the path to dictatorship.
Washington's life was an example to his countrymen, and as he referred to us, the "unborn millions," of what self-government meant. He believed that self-government meant governing ourselves, which is, nurturing the honorable within all of us and keeping the baser instincts under control. He tried to teach us virtue. He tried to teach us that honor is doing what is right. He tried to teach us to stand tall.
As far as his contemporaries were concerned, they got the message. George Washington died at age sixty-seven. John Marshall, who would later become the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, said:
"Our Washington is no more! The hero...lives now only in his own great actions, and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people."
Henry Lee, one of Washington's cavalry officers during the War of Independence, made a House of Representatives resolution, which ended:
"...to the memory of the man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."
If we think about it, George Washington could have been President for Life, but he wasn't. After the War of Independence, he could have marched the Continental Army to the capital and taken over the government. He probably could have succeeded. He was that popular. But his greatest legacy is that he willingly, twice in one lifetime, surrendered power to what he considered a more legitimate and virtuous way.
George Washington was not perfect. He was not a god. He lived here on this earth, walked the same ground we walk, breathed the same air we breathe. He might, however, be called the first among citizens. He was, nonetheless, a man like the rest of us who did his duty as he saw it. You can go and walk through his house. You can go see where the Constitution was debated. You can go to Williamsburg and Yorktown. But, the best thing happens when you go and stand on the bluff overlooking Trenton. You can imagine the army lined up in battle formation. You can hear the horses snorting in the chill morning air. You can see the rising sun reflecting off the bayonets. You can see the flags rustling in the wind. You can hear the newly fallen snow crunching under foot. And, finally, best of all, if you are very still and listen to the wind, you can hear the Founding Father whispering to you..."duty, honor, country."
Mr. Consolazio is an avid reader of the Medical Sentinel.
Originally published in the Medical Sentinel 2002;7(3):96-97. Copyright©2002 Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS)