The first president was indispensable to our early republic, precisely because he didn’t see himself as indispensable.
Revolutions tend to get hijacked, going from being about the people to being about the triumphant revolutionary leaders. And so the French Revolution begat Napoleon, and the Russian Revolution begat Lenin and Stalin.
It’s appropriate, therefore, that one of the more enduring, and endearing, aspects of our national reverence for George Washington is the fact that once he had militarily won independence for the American colonies—at a time when he had achieved global fame for this feat—he appeared perfectly content to return to his Mount Vernon estate and live out his remaining days as a respected Virginia planter.
The fact that Washington did not deem himself indispensable to what would follow lay down a marker for this new nation of self-reliant free men—he embodied the notion that in a representative democracy, no individual is indispensable. And that, paradoxically enough, is what made Washington an indispensable protagonist at the founding of our republic.
It’s worth noting that even as the conflict began between the colonies and their mother country, Washington had not burned with desire to command the new American army. Nor did he face the assignment given him with confidence that he would succeed. His misgivings began with the estimate of himself that he offered Congress with his acceptance of the appointment: “[M]y Abilities and Military experience,” he said, “may not be equal to this extensive and important Trust.”
He also felt uneasy about leaving his wife Martha, to whom he wrote from Philadelphia: “[T]hat so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavor in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the Family but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my Capacity and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you at home.” But, he added, “as it has been a kind of destiny that has thrown me upon this Service, I shall hope that my undertaking of it, is designed to answer some good purpose.”
The American people do not seem to have felt any of the doubts Washington carried within himself about his abilities, and his selection by the Congress did not surprise them. He had been a leading Virginia planter concerned about British moves to curtail economic autonomy and political freedom in the colonies in the years leading up to the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, and involved in the efforts to organize opposition to these moves. Many people across the colonies knew of Washington, had learned about him from militiamen who served under his command in the French and Indian War (as the Seven Years War, 1756 to 1763, was called in America).
Washington had come to the public’s attention early in the preliminaries to the war in 1754 when he tangled violently with a small French contingent in the Ohio country, an encounter that elicited his high-spirited (and foolish) comment: “I heard bullets whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.” The charm soon wore off as he suffered defeat in a battle a few months later. His reputation was not damaged however, and in the next four years his name became well-known throughout America as he fought with distinction—as a volunteer with General James Braddock and later as a commander of the Virginia Regiment with General John Forbes—until the Ohio country, or most of it, fell to British forces. Thus Congress’ action in making him commander of the Continental Army reflected the esteem he had earned in the conflict with the French.
Worldwide fame came to Washington during the American Revolution, despite the lack of a long succession of great victories. Washington was admired as much for how he handled adversity—and made sure his army outlasted it—as he was for his successes. His forces seemed on the edge of destruction every year after 1775. His army was defeated in major battles at Brooklyn in 1776; it suffered heavy losses in New York and New Jersey in the months after General William Howe smashed it in at Brooklyn Heights; it almost collapsed at Valley Forge where it had endured a terrible winter following defeat at Brandywine and Germantown. In the next three years, the army hardly prospered, usually nearly starving in camp. Its soldiers often proved unreliable—enlisting for short periods, and disappearing homeward bound whenever they could find a way from engagement in the war.
But this dispiriting assessment should be qualified by several facts about these men: Some fought with skill and bravery in all of their defeats, and there was a small number of superb officers at their head. Washington, in particular, stood alone in his brilliance and unwavering spirit, providing an example of steadfastness against all suggestions that the army should give up and concede victory to the British. After the battles at Trenton and Princeton, Nicholas Cresswell, a planter, recorded in his journal an opinion that was fairly widely shared: “Six weeks” before, a friend of his “was lamenting the unhappy situation of the Americans and pitying the wretched condition of their much-beloved General, supposing his want of skill and experience in military matters had brought them all to the brink of destruction. In short all was gone, all was lost. But now the scale is turned and Washington’s name is extolled to the clouds.”
The battle of Yorktown raised popular estimation of Washington even more, especially because it yielded a general conviction in America, almost matched in Britain, that the war was over (even if Washington did not necessarily agree). The toasts drunk to victory at this time always included one to Washington, the leader of the triumphal nation.
One of Washington’s finest moments came not on the battlefield or in any conventional aspect of warfare. It occurred in the army’s camp at Newburgh, New York, in early 1783. On this occasion, Washington dissuaded some disgruntled officers of his from forcing Congress—their masters and his—to provide back pay and pensions for themselves. It was healthy to petition Congress and speak up for the interests of its new army, which Washington forcefully did throughout the conflict, but in the end, he pointed out to his fellow officers, the “Civil Power” must govern, and the army must follow its direction. These officers may indeed have been considering the use of force to compel the Congress to act on their behalf; but confronted by their general, who had sacrificed so much, they gave way, and a tranquil United States made peace.
Washington reiterated his respect for civilian supremacy at the simple ceremony at which he surrendered his command, making clear that in the newly independent nation, even the greatest of generals remain servants to the republic and its representatives. The general would return to lead the “civil power” as our first president, but even then, only for a finite number of years, once again establishing the precedent of self-restraint and subservience to the law and republican norms. Thus, Washington’s great legacy was the idea that the launching of the United States was all about the people, not himself.