What do you know about George Washington? Do you know the real Washington or just the one liberal academia wants us to believe?
With Feb. 17 being President’s Day and Feb. 22 being the actual day George Washington was born, I thought it was no better time to honor again what I consider one of the greatest leaders ever born anywhere. I want to give the 10 reasons I believe everyone should admire Washington, no matter their political persuasion.
Let me begin by highlighting a few bullets of background for some who might not be as familiar with this pillar of American life beyond the basics, as documented by the University of Virginia and the History Channel.
According to Encyclopedia Virginia and history.com, on Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was born to a family of middling wealth in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the second son from the second marriage of a colonial plantation owner.
In 1752, at 23 years young, Washington joined the British army and served as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War.
In 1759, Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow, and adopted her two children (she had two other children, but they had passed).
In 1775, at 43 years old, Washington became the commander in chief of the Continental Army, and, in 1783, led America to victory over the British after eight years of war.
As far as his political career, Washington served as a member of the House of Burgesses of Virginia from 1759–1774. He was also a member of the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775. But while others were signing the Declaration of Independence, Washington was already on the battlefield fighting for independence. As the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, however, Washington was the first signer of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States of America. He was unanimously elected by the 69 presidential electors to serve his first term from 1789 to 1793. He was then again unanimously elected for his second term, 1793 to 1797. He declined a third term.
So here are my Top 10 reasons why I think everyone should admire George Washington, and why I believe his life and model is still worthy to reflect today. (These are also the reasons I often cited the father of America’s words and works among our other founders in my New York Times bestseller, “Black Belt Patriotism: How to Reawaken America.”)
10) Even as a youth, Washington was a role model for many. At just 14 years of age, young George wrote out in freehand on his own volition, “110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.” At age 17, George’s first official job was as official surveyor of Culpeper County, Virginia.
9) Washington epitomized courage. While others were frightened by signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington was on the front lines battling for its tenets. He faced his fears, endured grave hardships and even stared death in the eyes while helping others to do the same. Who can forget the severe conditions of Valley Forge? And what about the repeated threat of personal injury?
Washington even dodged bullets on several occasions. The University of Virginia documents a few of them: “at Braddock’s Defeat where two horses were shot under him and he had four bullets in his clothes; at the final skirmish of the Forbes expedition, on November 12, 1758, where he rushed between two parties of British who were firing at each other; at Kip’s Bay skirmish on September 15, 1776, where he rashly exposed himself in an attempt to rally the militia; at the battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777; and when making a reconnaissance of the British after the landing at the Head of Elk on August 26, 1777.”
8) Washington wasn’t afraid of public opinion or challenging the status quo. As the History Channel explained, “He struggled with advisers over what sort of image a president should project. He preferred one of dignity and humility and stumbled when encouraged to act out of character or monarchical. … A member of the Virginia planter class, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of owning slaves, yet publicly he promoted a gradual abolition of slavery. In his will he requested that his slaves be freed upon Martha’s death.” As far back as 1786, Washington said, “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it.”
7) Washington was a man of integrity and character, and yet just as human as the rest of us. Again, the History Channel explained, “Washington possessed that intangible quality of a born leader and had earned a reputation for coolness under fire and as a strict disciplinarian during the French and Indian campaign. … An extraordinary figure in American history and unusually tall at 6′ 3″, Washington was also an ordinary man. He loved cricket and fox-hunting, moved gracefully around a ballroom, was a Freemason and possibly a Deist, and was an astute observer of the darker side of human nature. His favorite foods were pineapples, Brazil nuts (hence the missing teeth from cracking the shells) and Saturday dinners of salt cod. He possessed a wry sense of humor and, like his wife Martha, tried to resist the vanities of public life. Washington could also explode into a rage when vexed in war or political battles. Loyal almost to a fault, he could also be unforgiving and cold when crossed. When Republican Thomas Jefferson admitted to slandering the president in an anonymous newspaper article for his support of Federalist Alexander Hamilton’s policies, Washington cut Jefferson out of his life. On at least one occasion, Washington’s stubbornness inspired John Adams to refer to him as Old Muttonhead.”
6) Washington was a first-class servant leader, who walked what he talked. He believed so firmly in our newly founded but poor republic that he took no pay for his service during the Revolutionary War (besides official expenses). And after eight long years of leading the war and retiring to his peaceful estate at Mount Vernon, he reenlisted rather than stay retired. It is amazingly commendable – if not astonishing – that Washington came out of military retirement to serve two terms as president. He even had to borrow money to pay off debts and travel to his own inauguration.
5) Washington didn’t allow personal obstacles to hinder his service to God, country and his family. Beginning at the age of 17, Washington suffered multiple malaria attacks throughout his life. He even had a case of smallpox and dysentery, and he struggled with depression and hearing loss.
In 1779, during the middle of the Revolutionary War, Washington “feared for his survival,” not from bullets but an abscess of the tonsils. And after all he had been through, at 57 years old with his war-torn body and reportedly a single real tooth in his mouth, Washington left behind the comfort of his estate on the edge of the Potomac River and traveled eight days to New York, where he was sworn in as president.
4) Washington was a devoted family man. In 1759, at 27 years of age, Washington married widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Though Martha and George had no children, he adopted her daughter and son from her former marriage. They also provided personal and financial support to nephews, nieces and other extended family members.
If it’s true that behind every great man is a great woman (and it is, as proof even with my wife, Gena, who does more for me and others than the world will ever know), then Washington’s wife, Martha, is definitely to be credited for part of the power behind the myth of the Father of our Nation. For example, for each of the eight years of the Revolutionary War, Martha came to Washington’s winter encampments (including Valley Forge) to boost his morale as well as the other officers.
No doubt Martha struggled to support Washington’s departure as general and president. Imagine how she must have repeatedly worried about him and his welfare over the years on the battlefield. Imagine her relief as he finally came home from eight years of leading the Revolutionary War only to “give him up again” for his country’s service as president. Though Martha refused to attend his inauguration, she stood by her man living with him at the temporary U.S. capitals of New York and Philadelphia, before the capital was moved to the District of Columbia.
Although Martha and George had a strong relationship, there’s no doubt he had a lifelong love interest in the beautiful and intellectually astute Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend George William Fairfax, whom he had met when he was just 16 years of age. Sally’s father would never allow her to marry someone other than from a wealthy, upper class like her family, and Washington didn’t fit the bill.
Mount Vernon historians noted how Sally “remained ever faithful to her marriage” and yet “a good friend of Washington and his wife Martha.” In 1773, she moved with her husband to England, where he died in 1787. In 1798, just a year before Washington’s death, he wrote Sally, urging her to return to Virginia. He added that nothing could “eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.” Sally never returned and died alone in England in 1811.
George was married to Martha for roughly 40 years. Just prior to her own death in 1802, Martha understandably destroyed nearly all of Washington’s letters to Fairfax, though three did survive.
Regarding Sally Fairfax, no man is perfect, and that included George Washington. He himself confessed: “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” Remembering that was likely the key to his humility, service and mercy to others.
3) Washington revered God and religion, often elevating their irreplaceable and invaluable roles in our republic. For example, in 1789, during the same time when the First Amendment was written, then-President Washington signed into law the Northwest Ordinance, which states, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
On Oct. 3, 1789, George Washington issued the First Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamation to God: “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
Regarding Washington’s often quoted practice of leaving church services before receiving the Eucharist (Communion), maybe his own struggle was born from his wrestling with his own humanity and immoral thoughts of Sally Fairfax or possibly even the human toll that incurred when leading the war. His refusal to receive the Eucharist doesn’t prove his unbelief in Christ but rather supports it and his reverence for what the Communion elements represented. (That makes more sense to me than Paul F. Boller, respected presidential historian, who wrote in 1963, “It cannot be said that Washington ever experienced any feeling of personal intimacy or communion with his God.”)
For a true reflection of Washington’s genuine Christian faith and intimacy with God, one must-see at Washington’s own Mount Vernon estate the museum’s exhibition display and video (set up within a mini-chapel setting) of how he esteemed and served God and churches – not exactly what you read in today’s public school textbooks or hear in classrooms. What you’ll watch and read there is that he was as passionate a believer in Jesus Christ as most Christians today. If only we taught about his religion what they display at Washington’s Mount Vernon museum, rather than trite comments that he was liberal, a deist and not intimate with his Savior.
2) Washington led our nation with frugality and self-sacrifice. As mentioned, throughout the Revolutionary War as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington refused to accept any pay, except that he was reimbursed by Congress for expenses accrued during the war. He was reluctant even to be paid as president, but was convinced by others it would not be a good precedent for future presidents. So, Congress gave Washington $25,000 a year, the largest salary in the U.S. for personal service at the time (2% of the national budget).
It should be noted, however, that being president then didn’t have the thousands of perks that come with the position today, including a free house or mansion in which to live. For example, after staying for 16 months in New York, George and Martha rented (initial lease was two years) a mansion in Philadelphia (the nation’s capital before D.C.), where they lived from 1790-1797. Washington had to use his salary for both official duties and to maintain his personal affairs, too – an amount he even complained was scarcely enough.
Because Washington conducted presidential business from that residence as well, he also supported a robust staff in addition to his family. The U.S. History website notes, “In November , when the presidential household moved in, there were up to thirty people living on the premises: Washington, his wife, Martha, and her grandchildren, Nelly and G. W. Parke Custis; Chief Secretary Tobias Lear, his wife, and the three male secretaries; eight enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon; and about fifteen white servants.”
Much is made today of Washington’s financial fortune (USA Today once labeled him “the big daddy of presidential wealth”), but most overlook that his wealth was largely amassed in the Mount Vernon estate – which he inherited from his elder half-brother in 1761, Martha’s land and slaves inherited from her former husband, and in Washington’s presidential salary, which started after he was 57 years old.
Sure, he had lots of assets, but his liquidity didn’t flow like the wealthy today. Remember, back then there was no established national banking system. Bartering and oscillating state currencies and commodities were the names of the game (until the 1792 Coinage Act), with the value of land fluctuating sharply based upon weather and crop production. As the Atlantic put it, “Because there was no central banking system and no regulatory framework for commodities, markets were subject to panics in ways unknown today.” Again, consider that at 57 years old, Washington even had to borrow money to pay off debts and to travel to his own inauguration.
1) The No. 1 reason why I think everyone should admire George Washington is because his character, integrity and leadership are rare and desperately needed today as much if not maybe even more so than they were in our republic’s formation.
In 1797, after winning the Revolutionary War and serving two presidential terms in office, Washington finally retired to Mount Vernon at 65 years of age, but he would only enjoy his rest for two years.
On Dec. 14, 1799, George Washington died of a severe respiratory sickness. His beloved Martha died only three years later, on May 22, 1802.
In his will, he humbly and simply referred to himself as “George Washington of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States, and late President of the same.”
At first, the Washingtons were laid to rest in an inconspicuous unmarked brick tomb at Mount Vernon. But their final resting place was in a crypt there that bears the title of him whom refused to be king. The engraved words over the tomb make known the title by which people knew Washington best back then – not as president but general.
The inscription reads: “Within this enclosure rest the remains of Gen. George Washington.” And over the door of the inner tomb is inscribed these large words from Jesus Himself in the Gospel of John (11:25): “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Washington’s good friend, Henry Lee, probably summarized his life, leadership and legacy best in the eulogy for the father of the United States: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
And so he remains, or should remain, always.
During this week we honor President’s Day at one end and Washington’s own birthday at the other, please consider sharing this article’s information on your social media and with those you love so that they can also know the real George Washington.
God, please give the U.S. more men and women like George and Martha Washington.
(For more on the monumental figure of George Washington, I recommend the amazing book, “Sacred Fire,” by Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe.)