The Importance of George Washington in the American Revolution

George Washington Lansdowne portrait, by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 / White House

Lecture by Dr. Joanne Freeman / 03.11.2010
Professor of History and American Studies
Yale University

Introduction: The Importance of George Washington

We are looking at what in a sense you could call the phenomenon of George Washington. His reputation — his exalted reputation — and importance during his lifetime, and some of the reasons why both of those things were true. What is it that he was doing, or what was it about him, that made him stand out in the way that he did then and actually in a sense forever after? But we’re going to be looking really during his lifetime, what was it about Washington that made him stand out. You’ll be getting a sense of Washington here. We will actually be looking at how the war was fought in a really literal way.

Many people were writing to each other from throughout the war in one way or another saying, ‘Oh, we’re in big trouble,’ — the British from very early on in the war saying, ‘I don’t know.’ So at the same time that they’re writing back to London and reporting, ‘Our military forces are strong and we are supreme and we will of course win this war for the greater glory of Britain and the colonies will be back to where they should be,’ they’re writing to each other and saying, ‘I don’t know. What do you think about this? Because this is really tricky, and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it. I don’t know if we can get enough men here. Logistically, this is a disaster. They hate us. It’s hard to be hated.’ It’s all these really interesting letters.

As powerful as the British Army is and as much as you would assume at the time they would assume things are going to go swimmingly and we’re going to just sweep this up in no time, there are all these sort of back-channel letters of people on the ground who are actually in a sense being very realistic about it and saying, ‘This is really hard. This is really tricky. I don’t know if this is going to work’ — throughout the war in really sometimes sort of bemused and sometimes really depressed tones.

The Many Merits of Washington from the Letters of Hamilton and Adams


Left: Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, by John Trumbull, 1806 / Washington University Law School
Right: Portrait of John Adams, by John Trumbull, 1792 / White House Blue Room

As a historian I have to admit that this kind of lecture sometimes might make me nervous, because as a historian it makes me nervous to declare that one person was crucial. That’s the kind of declaration historians don’t like to make. They like to say, ‘Oh, well, history’s complicated. Events are complicated. They unfold in complicated ways’ — and all of that is true. That said, in many ways Washington actually was crucial not just to the Revolutionary War effort but equally if not more important, as we’re going to see later in the course, to the launching of the new government under the Constitution.

Washington ends up being really crucial in this period, and one of the central reasons why that’s true, is because people trusted him with power. We’re going to look today partly at why they trust him with power — but in one way or another throughout this period people trusted him with power, and in an age and among a people who were really wary about power, about tyranny, about where power was being placed, this is a very big deal to be the person that people trust with power. It matters a lot.

And in a sense, the deployment of power, the holding of power, being entrusted with power, is sort of the central crucial issue with Washington’s importance. I think the Revolution and the presidency have sort of this key thing about him that makes him different. Really, he is in many ways — particularly when he becomes the first President — the only person people could think of trusting in that role of having extreme power. And part of what I’m going to be talking about today is why? Why is that true? Why is he such a trusted character? What did he do to be so trusted? And it’s — something he’s particularly skilled at is not just holding positions of power but managing to have power while also calming people’s fears about what that power might mean.

In a sense when we think about Washington,he gets sort of gypped in the long run with history, not because we don’t remember him or not because we don’t honor George Washington, but because he’s sort of a nonperson. He’s sort of this block of marble who sort of glides through history like: ‘well, yeah, I fought a war, became the President, went home and died.’ George Washington, the guy — he doesn’t get to be a real person. He’s just sort of almost a symbol to us — and then I suppose that even at the time in some ways, as we’re going to hear in the end of the lecture, even then he’s a little bit of a symbol — but we don’t think of him very often as a person with insecurities and ambitions, as a person with political savvy — he actually was very politically savvy — as a person with specific political ideas and ideals, right? We don’t tend to even attribute many ideas to him at all. We just think of him as capital “L” leader, but in fact he’s all of these things. He is a person and all that that entails.

That said, even during his lifetime, he was already being shaped into a legend. Right? The title “Father of His Country” is a title that was given to him even before the country finally existed. The Revolution’s not over yet, and some people are calling him Father of His Country, so this happens pretty — at a pretty early point to Washington, that he ascends into this position.

John Adams is a little jealous of other people who appear to be getting the glory, credit, and fame that he thinks he deserves, and not surprisingly he’s a little irked at Washington’s incredible sort of renown and status and fame and how beloved he is, as it developed between the Revolution and the 1790s. To Adams, Washington is just so revered — and he writes this letter. I’m going to read a piece of it here. Once again, Benjamin Rush, who keeps appearing and disappearing in this course. He and Adams write these amazing — Just in the same way that Jefferson and Adams write amazing letters in their old age, Adams and Rush do the same thing. They write these really great letters to each other. They’re published in a book called The Spur of Fame, I think is the name of it. They’re really fascinating and really interesting and this is one of them.

Page from letter by John Adams to Dr. Benjamin Rush on the top ten talents of George Washington / Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York

And Adams writes it in 1807, so it’s a few years after Washington died — he died in 1799 — and they’re talking about Washington clearly in an exchange of letters here. And Adams — Clearly one of the things that irks him is that Washington wasn’t as book-learned as Adams and many of their contemporaries were. He’s someone who doesn’t have a formal education. He’s not thinking about Aristotle. He’s not thinking about the things that Adams thinks people should be thinking about if they’re great statesmen.

So here in this letter he tries to come up with the top ten talents that Washington had that made him great, none of them having anything to do with book learning. Right? It’s like, okay, so if he doesn’t have book learning, what are the top ten talents? It’s David Letterman-esque: the top ten talents of George Washington that made him so great. So this is Adams’ description: “Talents! you will say, what Talents? I answer. 1. An handsome Face. [laughter] That this is a Talent, I can prove by the authority of a thousand Instances in all ages…. 2. A tall stature, like the Hebrew sovereign chosen because he was taller by the Head than the other Jews. 3. An elegant Form.” [laughter] You can see where this is going.

“4. Graceful Attitudes and Movements. 5. A large imposing Fortune consisting of a great landed Estate left him by his Father and Brother … and in addition to this immense tracts of land of his own acquisition. There is nothing, except bloody Battles and splendid Victories to which Mankind bowed down with more reverence than to great fortune. … 6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents. [laughter] Virginian Geese are all Swans. Not a Bearne in Scotland is more national, not a Lad upon the High Lands is more clannish than every Virginian I have ever known. … 7. Washington was preceded by favorable Anecdotes. The English had used him ill in the expedition of Braddock [during the French and Indian War]. They had not done Justice to his Bravery and good Council. They had exaggerated and misrepresented his defeat. . .which interested the Pride as well as compassion of Americans in his favour. … 8. He possessed the Gift of Silence. This I esteem as one of the most precious Talents.”

I think that’s partly because Adams does not possess the gift of silence.

“9. He had great Self Command. It cost him a great exertion sometimes, and a constant Constraint, but to preserve so much equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity. 10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World. Here you see I’ve made out ten Talents without saying a word about Reading, Thinking or writing.”

Ooh, thank you, John Adams. Okay. So he’s being a little bit snarky in that letter, saying that Washington looked like and behaved like a great leader and was from Virginia, and so he was treated like a great leader.

It’s true that Washington didn’t have the same sort of formal education that someone like Jefferson or Madison or even Adams had, but he was more than a man who just looked the part. Now it is true that in some ways Washington was sort of like any other Virginia gentleman. As Adams says, he’s a large landowner. He had inherited his estate, Mount Vernon, from his father and then enlarged it himself. Like a lot of other Virginia gentlemen he was a skilled horseman, which was a very prized skill in Virginia. You probably remember or maybe you might remember earlier in the course I talked about William Maclay sitting next to a Virginian at a dinner party and saying that all they talked about was cockfighting and horses and alcohol. Horses are in there in the top three. So horse — being a good horseman was very valued and Washington — some called him “the finest horseman in the country”.

A somewhat less impressive but expected one: Washington was a good dancer. Things you never knew about George Washington: he was a good dancer, which sounds seemingly trivial, but again as a gentleman generally and as a Virginian specifically being a good dancer is a way — another way of sort of publicly displaying your superior breeding. Adams mentions grace, dignity — all of these things that would make a gentleman noticeable and someone who would seem to be superior. Dancing is one of them and luckily he was a good dancer and he liked dancing — not the image we have of George.

Also like other gentlemen of the time, Virginian and otherwise, Washington was ambitious. And this is going to come up again. He doesn’t necessarily always look ambitious, but he was ambitious. He did want to earn status and reputation. He was ambitious to better himself. During the French and Indian War, he struggled to raise himself within the ranks of the army, and for the entirety of his life he was very focused on protecting and preserving his reputation. He talks about it a lot. When he makes a big decision about should I do this or should I not do this, it’s clearly — part of that decision is what will this do to my reputation?

And Alexander Hamilton, who served in one way or another at Washington’s side for many years — first as an aide during the war and then as Washington’s first Secretary of the Treasury — Hamilton is someone who really knew that if you wanted to get Washington to do something you played the reputation card. Right? ‘Well, if you don’t do this, Sir, it may affect your reputation.’ [laughter] And so one way or another, if it might affect his reputation, Washington’s going to take it very seriously — so he very much thought about what anything that he did would do to his reputation. And what that actually means is, when he does take these positions of great power and responsibility, he’s earning reputation, he’s also risking reputation, and I think he realizes both things. I’ll come back to that momentarily.

Okay. So a large landowner, skilled horseman, good dancer, ambitious, protective of his reputation. All of these things would have been true of many gentlemen from throughout this period. And plus, of course — this is obvious but worth stating because we forget it when we talk about Washington — like any other gentleman of the period Washington was human. Right? He could be self-interested. He could be gloomy. He could get excited. He was all of these things at various points during the war and after. He sometimes doubted himself. He got bored. He got tired of all the pomp and ceremony that basically surrounded him for the last twenty-five years of his life.

There’s a story of him as President; he really didn’t like all the pomp surrounding him as President, and there are several stories actually, more than one. He was seen giving a ceremonial dinner as President, sitting at the head of the table at this formal dinner, staring into space and sort of banging a piece of silverware on the table, [whistles] — so not wanting to be there and so uninterested in what was going on. Again, he’s all of these things, including human as other gentlemen all were. But there is something about Washington that was different and in a sense, there had to be something different to put him in the exalted position of being quite literally, as one of his friends said at his death, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Ingredients of the Washington Phenomenon: Self-Presentation, Fortune, and the Need for a King

General George Washington at Trenton, by John Trumbull, 1792 / Yale University Art Gallery

So how can we explain the phenomenon of George Washington? And what I’m going to talk about here in the answer basically is an answer with three parts. The first part, as we’re about to see, has to do with Washington personally. He’s a man who was extremely skilled at shaping his public image, at controlling himself and presenting to the world what he wanted them to see. Related to that, so part of that same thing, he was very skilled at sizing up a situation and figuring out just what sort of statement or action it required. He was often a really brilliant political strategist and a lot of people during his lifetime and after praised his good judgment. He had — That’s always the word they used: He had good judgment. He was someone who could survey the opinions of lots of people, ask all of his advisers for advice. They often, more often than not, had conflicting advice. He would take it under advisement. He’d consider things for himself. He’d come to a conclusion and he’d act on it in a way that everyone always thought was calm, considered, thoughtful. He was someone who had good judgment and didn’t act impulsively. So one reason for the phenomenon of Washington, as I’ll talk about in a moment here, has to do with his self-presentation and concrete skills in presenting himself as a leader.

The second way in which he earned his reputation has to do really with the simple fact that he’s the right person with the right talents, at the right place, at the right time. People often, when they look at this time period, in one way or another they ask the question, ‘Well, why in this period were there so many great men? What was it about this period that you have Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison? Why all them?’ And I think part of the answer has to do with the right people in the right place at the right time. I’ve talked earlier in the course about how, as young men, this is a generation of people who were trained by reading things like Plutarch’s Lives to think that one of the sort of noblest and grandest things you could ever do is to be the founder of a nation, to be a great statesman.

So you have a generation of young men who are trained to think that that’s true, and then that generation happens to be there when there’s a nation being founded. That’s sort of a great — For them, it’s great, and they see that. They understand: ‘oh, my gosh, this is the greatest thing I can do and I can do it. Who knew?’ So you have these people who had somewhat limited horizons. Maybe they were going to be a lawyer or they would serve in public service in their own colony, and suddenly the horizon opens and they’re able to be nation-founders, and they know it and they rise to the occasion to promote themselves and to do public good, to do both things at the same time, take advantage of the opportunity and act. And so it’s partly why so many great men — It’s partly — You have people who understand the significance of what’s happening and act in that capacity to do what they’ve been trained to think is good to do, which is you do great acts of service for your state, you become a great statesman and you earn immortal fame. So you do great things for your country and you get to be famous. They both happen sort of at the same time, so it’s sort of selfless and self-interested at the same time. So Washington also, like many people in this era, is the right person with the right talents at the right time, but he has very specific talents that are really well suited to this moment in time.

And then finally, the third reason for the Washington phenomenon is kind of a combination of the previous two, and that’s basically the idea that during the prime years of Washington’s life, Americans lost a king and needed some other figure of central importance to fill this vacuum of national leadership, some other leader who they could honor as sort of the symbolic core of their new nation. And Washington, because of who he was, because of who he presented himself as being, because of what he did, because of the ways in which he tried deliberately to conform with prevailing feelings about leadership and about doing things like leading armies, he really ends up being the right man for that job. So for all of those reasons, Washington ends up being the Father of His Country even before the country is officially a country, when it’s still fighting its war.

So let’s turn now to those three reasons. Let’s start with reason number one, which is Washington and self-presentation, and in a way this is along — this is similar not only what Adams said, but you’ll hear Adams echoed in some of what I’m going to be talking about here. Now, in a general way, this is true that Washington presented himself well as a leader, and in a general way — by that I mean in a very specific way — he just looked and acted like a Commander-in-Chief. He was a very tall and imposing physical presence. He’s a big man, tall for the time, also just apparently big-boned. He’s just a big, imposing figure, very powerful looking, who also managed to be graceful in his movements, as Adams said. So he’s someone who’s strong, big, powerful, and also seems in command of himself physically, so he was just imposing to look at.

Washington taking Control of the Continental Army, 1775 / Copy of lithograph by Currier & Ives, 1876. National Archives and Records Administration

That’s a natural gift, but Washington had other much more deliberate self-conscious aspects of his self-presentation as a leader that really served him well. And as Adams sort of hints, one of them is his self-control, which was remarkable, and he really was controlling his passions for most of the time. Now, I will say that any gentleman of the period would have been expected to display self-command or self-control as a sign of his superior character, and the ultimate example of that of course is dueling. Right? Gentlemen are the ones supposedly who duel in this time period, and part of what you’re doing when you duel is you’re showing that you’re willing to risk your life to defend your honor by standing on the field of honor against someone who is going to be shooting at you. And you need to have complete self-command and mastery of your passions and stand there dispassionately, allowing this other person to shoot at you. Right? That’s the ultimate example of what they would have considered in this period to be gentlemanly self-command or self-control.

For Washington self-command was particularly important, because as Adams suggested, he really did have a pretty impressive temper. He kept it under control most of the time, but he did lose his temper on a number of occasions, and the reason why we know that is people who were there and saw it were very impressed and they usually wrote it down like: ‘ooh, [laughs] guess what happened today?’ So people tend to take note because it was impressive, scary. He was a big guy and he would just — when he lost his temper he really lost his temper. A great example of it — It happens a number of times through the Revolution and I actually went off looking to see if I could find a very specific example — couldn’t find one that I had enough specific information on to offer, so I’m going to offer this other one, only because I have a quote associated with it, and it’s a story that always makes me happy. So even though it’s from his presidency, it’s the same George.

There’s an instance of Washington really, really just losing it during a cabinet meeting in which one of his cabinet members came in with a cartoon from a newspaper making fun of Washington, and Washington just lost it. He just — He didn’t like being President. Everyone was making fun of him. He just lost control and literally went into a screaming rant: ‘I never wanted this job. I never wanted this job from the moment I took this job and I’ve never wanted it at any moment since’ — just screaming ranting. We know this of course because Thomas Jefferson took notes on it, right? [laughter] like, ‘you won’t believe’ — and it’s his personal notes but he took — he wrote down his version of what he heard. But my favorite part is — apparently this was a really impressive rant, and in Jefferson’s notes he describes the rant, and then at the end of the rant he writes in his notes, ‘An awkward silence ensued’ [laughter] and then ends, ‘some difficulty resuming our conversation.’ [laughter] And you could just hear — You could just — It just feels like you’re in the room like: ‘okay, [laughs] now what do we do? Can we go home? [laughs] You’re scary, George. You scared us.’

Okay. So mastering your passion is vital for anyone to be a trusted and admired leader. For Washington, considering his temper, it’s very important and he did master his feelings, his temper, most of the time, but he did more than just try not to display his temper. He actually tried to suppress any sign of his feelings. He didn’t want people to be able to read him. He actually wanted to appear sort of dispassionate, someone that you couldn’t tell what he was thinking. And he apparently did that reasonably well, but also, it’s clear that he did it really, really deliberately, because there is an account of someone who went to visit him towards the end of his presidency and supposedly commented to Washington, ‘My, Sir, you look eager to get back to Mount Vernon,’ and Washington replied, No. “My countenance never yet betrayed my feelings.” Right? You don’t know I’m looking forward to getting back to Mount Vernon. You can’t tell what I’m feeling on my face. [laughter] ‘Okay. Yes, Sir.’ [laughs] But clearly, he’s trying to present a version of himself probably — maybe successfully or not successfully — but largely some of the time successfully, as this sort of dispassionate, in-command, in-control kind of a leader.

Balancing Solemnity with Humility: Washington as the Reluctant Leader

Engraved portrait of Gouverneur Morris by J. Rogers, 1787 / Library of Congress

He knew how to present and preserve his dignity, and when you joined that with his very imposing appearance, his self-command made him a rather intimidating figure. He is someone who many, many people felt intimidated by. A great story that I have to tell — I can’t resist a good story. Basically, as I’m writing these lectures I’m like: oh, this means I can tell this story, and then I write it right into the lecture. This is just a famous example which — well, or a pseudo example. It may have happened, it may not have happened, but it’s a famous story, which I’ll tell anyway with the sort of proviso that maybe it didn’t happen. But maybe it did. And it’s when he’s first President. This is a great example of how everyone perceived him to be this imposing, scary character.

There is some kind of a reception really early on when the government first gets under way, and Washington’s there and Alexander Hamilton is there, and one of Hamilton’s friends named Gouverneur Morris is there. And Morris and Hamilton always get each other into trouble because they have the same sense of humor and they’re kind of practical jokers and it’s just a bad thing; if the two of them are together bad things happen. So this is a great occasion of that in which Hamilton says to Morris, ‘I’ll bet you a dinner you don’t dare go up to Washington and slap him on the back and say, ‘Damn good to see you, Sir.’ It was like: you don’t dare touch him. Right? ‘You go touch him. I’ll bet you a dinner you don’t dare.’ Right? Ridiculous, but Morris apparently takes up the bet, goes up to Washington, pats him on the back, ‘damn good to see you, General,’ and later reports the look that he got from Washington at imposing in this way. He said he just wanted the floor to open up so he could just go through, like “poof,” I’m gone, [laughter] and he supposedly went back to Hamilton and said, “Yeah, I won the bet, not worth it” — really not worth it. He is just this imposing figure.

During the war, on many occasions he actually really had to be an imposing figure not just for reasons of concrete military success, which — it’s true he did, for that reason — but also because he individually personified the Revolutionary cause in many ways, including to the British, not just to his own men but to the British as well, to British military authorities. He had to be imposing enough to command respect from people who were not necessarily prepared to see him as the commanding general of a real army. And as an example of this, one of the sort of war games that the British occasionally deployed against Washington was to address things to him in writing by a civilian title, to George Washington, Esquire, rather than General George Washington, right? — doing that really deliberately. ‘Yeah, okay, we’re going to be respectful, George Washington, Esquire, but you’re not really a general and it’s not a real army’ — is the implication.

So on one occasion, British General Howe addresses a letter to Washington: George Washington, Esquire. Washington sees this, gets the letter, refuses to accept it and sends it back: ‘it’s not addressed to me.’ Okay. So then Howe readdresses it and this time he says to: George Washington, Esquire, etcetera, etcetera. Yeah. [laughter] This gets sent along with an aide back to Washington and Washington — the aide assures Washington that, quote, “The etcetera, etcetera, implied everything that ought to follow.” Right? He may not have said General Washington but the etcetera means he was thinking it [laughs] so that’s pretty feeble. Washington says, “It’s true that etcetera, etcetera implied everything and they also implied anything” and he refuses to accept it again: ‘this is not addressed to me.’ And he sends it back, which takes some fortitude to be sort of standing there handing back this piece of paper multiple times to this person — this aide to General Howe.

Supposedly, someone who was there said that the aide had, quote, “a pleasing confusion on him the whole time.” Right? He just didn’t know what to do, because he just didn’t expect to confront this figure who would just stand there and say, ‘No. You don’t respect me. I don’t accept it. Now what are you going to do?’ So it completely put him on the defensive, this poor British aide, and he had to sort of go back and sort of figure out what to do so that they could address him in some way that he would actually read the letter. He had to be someone who could maintain his dignity and maintain his position, not just to command an army, but also to command the respect of the enemy.

So clearly he’s an imposing figure and he had to be, but there’s an important point to make here, and that is, Washington combined that imposing demeanor with something that was equally if not more important for him to display as a leader in the new nation, and as particularly a military leader in the new nation, and that is that he had a modest demeanor. He was imposing, but he did not look like someone who was grasping for power. He knew how to display himself to his best advantage, but he wasn’t all pomp and show and display. He was the opposite. He was modest, he was cool, he was reserved, and this was really important in the new American nation for some very good reasons which had to do with distrust of power.

Washington’s Symbolic Gestures as Commander-in-Chief of a Republican Army


Left: Enthroned Washington, by Horatio Greenough, 1840 / National Museum of American History
Right: The apotheosis of Julius Caesar, from the Belvedere Altar, c.12 BCE / Vatican Museums, Rome

In many ways, as we’ve seen in this course so far, the events leading up to the Revolution had confirmed Americans’ worst fears about tyranny and power. To Americans, first Parliament and then the King had become tyrannical and had used their power to destroy the liberties of American colonists. So now, enter George Washington who is given command of the American army and, as you’ve already seen and discussed in the course, one of the most obvious and deadly tools of tyranny is a standing army. And history has plenty examples of what happens when the wrong man gets control of an army, and of course the most famous example would be Julius Caesar. And in Caesar you have this brilliant warrior whose army was loyal to him and not to the Roman state, and eventually Caesar took his army, marched on Rome, seized power, basically destroyed the Roman republic and installed himself as emperor. That’s not ancient history to Americans or to anyone in the period. That’s a lesson. That’s a warning. Look at what happens when ambitious men get military power. You get dictatorship. You get tyranny. You get all of the things that Americans certainly are afraid might happen — and things are in flux; they might happen.

So here we have Washington taking command of an organized — or I suppose you could say semi-organized — army, a frightening concept and certainly a really tricky situation for the person taking command of an army in that kind of an atmosphere. So creating a small “r’ republican army is a tricky thing. That kind of an army — It — Certainly, it has to be disciplined, but it can’t seem like this polished, professional fighting force because that moves off into the territory of: wait a minute. Is this detached from the state? What is this? Is this some private Washington army? It has to seem able to be sort of submissive to the state and yet able to fight and defend. It has to be a really careful balance between having power but not having too much power, being able to do what it’s supposed to do but not being able seemingly to do it without any other authority of any kind — and this is Washington’s task.

He has to create this really difficult to define thing, a republican army, and we’ve already seen how hard it would have been just generally to create an army out of people from all of these different colonies and then finally all of these different states who don’t necessarily see eye to eye and they hadn’t worked together before and they care more about their locality than about anywhere else. So there are all these basic logistical problems with the army, and now add this one into the mix, right? — which is an army is something people are very, very nervous about, and now he’s going to be the guy who’s taking command of it.

Now Washington was really aware of all of these prevailing fears about power-hungry tyrants and armies, so he did literally everything that he could do to prove to Americans inside the Continental Congress and outside of the Continental Congress that he was not seeking power. Rather, he was accepting power. It was being given to him but he was not seeking it. And here you can see his good judgment as well as his skillful self-presentation in play. He’s really sensitive to these prevailing fears and he’s really skilled at appeasing them. So for example listen to what he says in his address to the Continental Congress after he’s nominated as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Okay. This is his address. He makes a very brief address, a statement, to the Congress:

“Tho’ I am truly sensible of the high Honour done me, in this Appointment, yet I feel great distress, from a consciousness that my abilities and military experience may not be equal to the extensive and important Trust. However, as the Congress desire it, I will enter upon the momentous duty, and exert every power I possess in the service, and for support of the glorious cause. I beg they will accept my most cordial thanks for this distinguished testimony of their approbation. But, lest some unlucky event should happen, unfavourable to my reputation, I beg it may be remembered, by every Gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the Command I am honored with.”

Okay. He’s just been given the command of the army and he says, ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to try my hardest. I don’t think I’m up to the task. I don’t think I’m good enough for this but I’m going to try my hardest.’

Now, given that I’ve already described how he showed up to the Congress in a military uniform basically saying, ‘Hi. I want this position,’ certainly he’s not — he was not someone who was going to look away. He wanted this position of being Commander-in-Chief of the Army. And he then stands up and announces, ‘I don’t think I’m good enough for this,’ which might lead you to assume that it’s an empty platitude, but it really isn’t. It’s the absolute perfect thing for someone in that position to say at that moment because it reassured people; this is very explicitly what he was doing. He’s not an ambitious tyrant in the making. And it did contain some truth, because the fact of the matter is he wanted the position and he was honestly fearful. You heard him say that if some bad thing happens to my reputation — his reputation — He does truly fear that maybe he isn’t up to the task. This seems pretty enormous and who knows what’s going to happen? So he’s also expressing a sincere concern, a sincere fear.

In that same statement to Congress, he goes on to do brilliant thing number two — again another example of his good judgment. He announces that he will serve without pay as proof that he does not want to make any kind of profit from his service, that he wants no financial benefit for what he’s doing for his country. Again, really brilliant thing to do. Now of course he also says he’s going to keep an exact account of his expenses. He doesn’t want to get a salary, but he will charge Congress for his expenses — and there is an amusing book titled George Washington’s Expense Account by Marvin Kitman that looks at what Washington was actually charging the Congress for. So it’s not as though he was spending a lot out of pocket. He did keep a careful account of all of his expenses as Commander-in-Chief, but again that’s a pretty significant statement to make. People noticed it at the time and commented on it and saw it, the symbolism in it and the meaning of it, and commented just in the way that he would have hoped people would have done. He really wanted to make a certain impact, and he did.

So for example, here is John Adams at the time — not afterwards with his ten talents, but at the time. He says:

“There is something charming to me in the conduct of Washington. A gentleman of one of the first fortunes upon the continent, leaving his delicious retirement, his family and friends, sacrificing his ease, and hazarding all in the cause of his country! His views are noble and disinterested. He declared, when he accepted the mighty trust, that he would lay before us an exact account of his expenses, and not accept a shilling for pay.”

Or, as another Congressman put it, “Let our Youth look up to this man as a pattern to form themselves by; who unites the bravery of the soldier with the most consummate modesty and virtue.” Okay. That’s exactly the point that he’s trying to make, right? — that I’m going to take this large command, that I’m not looking personally to profit by it, and there we have witnesses that are exactly getting that message.

Shortly thereafter he made yet another symbolic gesture, another example of the way in which he’s so good at appeasing people’s fears. He gets a letter from the New York Provincial Congress with a little nervous passage in it reminding him that when the war ends he’s expected to resign his position and return to civilian life. Okay. This is a little nervous letter from New York saying, ‘Please don’t be a military dictator after the war. Sincerely, the New York Provincial Congress.’ I don’t know what they thought they would accomplish with that letter, but it’s a valid fear. It’s one that many people had — and again, Washington responds with a sort of model reply. He says, “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen; and we shall most sincerely rejoice with you in that happy hour when the establishment of American Liberty … shall enable us to return to our Private Stations in the bosom of a free, peaceful, and happy Country.” This is exactly what people would have wanted a military leader to say: ‘I look forward to the end of the war where I and everyone else can all go home, end of army, end of power.’ And that letter and the New York letter that called it forth are both published in newspapers around the colonies.

In both of these actions, Washington is styling himself after the sort of republican ideal of a leader, right? Someone who’s public minded; he’s self-sacrificing; he’s virtuous; he’s devoted to his country. There is a play at the time by British writer Joseph Addison titled Cato, which is based on the life of Cato the Younger who defended Rome and Roman virtues against the tyrant Caesar, and that was highly popular in America at this time and not surprisingly, it’s Washington’s favorite play. Washington has it performed for the troops. It’s reprinted again and again and again in revolutionary America. And Nathan Hale’s famous last words, “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” are adapted from that play. That’s the sort of ideal that Washington’s trying to live up to, and any wise man assuming a position of leadership — and particularly military leadership — would have done the same thing. Modesty, self-sacrifice, not lusting for power. The best way to be trusted and beloved as a leader was to modestly surrender power again and again, and people would then be sure to come back and offer you more.

Now it’s worth mentioning at this point that maybe the most famous thing that Washington ever did is right along these lines. The most famous thing that he did at the time, is at the close of the war. The war is over. He has won. He has an army at his command and what does he do? He resigns his commission and goes home, period. That was literally world-shaking in its impact. It is not what people thought would happen at the end of the war. You have a victorious general and an army. People assume, what happens now is that that victorious general takes power. Washington literally just said, ‘Thank you very much’ and went back to Mount Vernon, end of story.

It was noticed the world over. It was — had such an impact. It literally ensured that Washington would be the one man most trusted with power forever after, because he had given that supreme example of giving it up. He had said at the moment where everyone expected him to keep it, ‘No. I’m giving it right back.’ That’s why he ends up being the one guy who could have been President — because he proved in — to Americans at the time, in the ultimate way possible, he was not hungry for power. Supposedly, at the time — When King George heard that this was what was going to happen — that Washington was just going to resign and go home — supposedly his response was that if Washington did do that, quote, “he will be the greatest man in the world.” That’s the King saying: the impact of that will be enormous, if he’s actually going to do that. The King doesn’t even really believe he will, but if he actually does that, that’s an incredible act. He will be the greatest man in the world.

So one historian has said basically, “George Washington was the virtuoso of resignations.” [laughs] He perfected the art of getting power by giving it away. In a sense that’s true. It’s not that he’s being devious. It’s not that he’s sort of pretending to be modest because he wants power. It’s that he understands people’s fears. It’s that he’s serving in positions that he wants to serve, but he then also understands that his job after serving in them is to step away and allow future responsibility to be given to him again. He maintains a sort of ideal balance between ambition and modesty — and it’s this ideal and sort of really necessary balance in America at the time where people were so scared of power, standing armies, monarchs, tyrants, dictators, all of these things sort of looming. And Washington ends up in one way or another proving again and again that he isn’t any of those things.

And it’s for all of these reasons why, when King George III finally is let go of — right? I’ve talked in the past about how Americans first are upset with Parliament and then finally they’re upset with the King and it’s a slow process of Americans sort of divorcing themselves from their love and loyalty for England. When they finally let go of the King, it makes sense, given everything that I’ve just said, that Washington is the logical person who fills that vacuum of the sort of symbolic leader who’s going to represent America, who’s going to be the sort of core symbolic leader of America.

Very early on in the war, people begin to substitute George Washington for King George in ceremonies and rituals. As early as 1778, Washington is called the Father of His Country. Washington’s birthday, and not the King’s, is celebrated as early as 1779. So literally, he’s just being substituted right in. It’s like, ‘well, we lost that symbolic figure. Here’s a new George. We’ll just put him right in. We have a new leader and he’s virtuous and he’s not ambitious and he’s a good republican leader so we can actually celebrate him and we want him to be a sort of symbolic center of the American cause.’

Washington’s Legacy as a Leader

General George Washington Resigning His Commission to the Continental Congress / Architect of the Capitol

We’ve certainly seen how Washington looked and acted the part of the ideal republican leader. We’ve seen how and why this was so important to Americans in revolutionary and early national America. They had really good reasons to be scared, suspicious about power and who had it — and Washington proved again and again he was the ideal person to trust with power. He understood prevailing fears. He addressed himself to calming those fears in sincere ways in his manner, in his actions, in his self-presentation, yet also managing to remain an imposing leader throughout. It was a really difficult balance, I think, for anyone to maintain and in many ways it’s why he really is the right man with the right skills in the right place at the right time.

He’s the guy who manages to maintain that difficult balance — to command an army, to sort of be a symbolic center of a new nation, to allow for the fact that he’s ambitious but to not seem too ambitious, to not seem desirous of power. It’s a really, really tricky thing to carry off and Washington actually did, which is kind of remarkable. And, granted, there are moments probably when he did it better than others, but in the end it’s his ability to maintain that kind of balance that made him the perfect figure for that moment in time and for serving the role that he served in the Revolution.