#1: George Washington
George Washington is the greatest American for a few simple reasons and several complicated and altogether surprising ones.
The simplest? No George Washington, no America.
Far removed from the Revolution by time and our nation's spectacular intervening success, we don't appreciate the astonishing odds the colonies
overcame in besting England nor the mortal peril the Founders risked. We won the war, it all worked out. But on that July day in 1776, the men who gravely scratched their names on
parchment with quill and ink signed their death sentences.
While George Washington didn't sign the Declaration, he too would have certainly swung . . . before he was drawn and quartered.
No one was better suited or better trained to lead an often rag-tag American army than this man. On June 15, 1775 the Continental Congress
unanimously chose him as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army; four days later they pinned the epaulettes on his broad shoulders. . . .
Congratulations George, you're a marked man! Now, it's your job to take a bunch of farmers who'll likely desert come harvest time and whip
'em into a fighting force capable of defeating the best professional military in the world.
But Washington had learned invaluable lessons in the French and Indian War, most importantly when to disengage—that is, when to turn tail and
get your men out of harm's way so you can, as the old saw goes, live to fight another day. Again and again over the Revolutionary War's seven years,
that's just what he did—on Long Island, thence to Manhattan, across New Jersey, into Pennsylvania…. He lost more battles than he won, but his
losses never proved decisive, only his victories.
Washington was the most improbable of American patriots, about as likely
to rebel against England as Dwight Eisenhower defecting to the Soviet Union. If you were his close friend during the French and Indian War and
someone told you that one day young George over there will lead a Continental Army in revolt, you might've replied: "You don't say . . . and
one day they'll build a bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn and you'll be the only guy who can sell it to me."
But his disillusionment with Britannia began in the French and Indian War; Mother England had only herself and her policies to blame for
nurturing the future Father of His Country.
Washington did something that almost no one in history has had the
strength of purpose and integrity to resist: he refused to be king. At war's end, both Washington's officers and a good deal of the newly independent
American people wanted their heroic military leader to simply take over as ruler. Some even suggested crowning him. For his part, Washington first
dissuaded his officers then, on December 23, 1783, marched into the statehouse at Annapolis, Maryland, returned his general's rank, and said in
effect: the war's over, I no longer need to wear these things—if you want to elect me leader I'll gladly serve, but I will not become the very thing over
which we fought a long, costly war.
What he actually said was:
Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of Action—and bidding an affectionate farewell to this August
body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
Finally, like many of this country's founders, especially those who ran
plantations, Washington owned slaves. It's not historical revisionism to denounce the glaring hypocrisy of men who premised the advent of a new
country on "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," claiming as self-evident that "all men are created equal." There were many people at the
time—some Founders themselves—who decried slavery, such as John Adams:
"… I have, through my whole life, held the practice of Slavery in such
abhorrence, that I have never owned a Negro or any other Slave…."—letter from John Adams to Robert J. Evans, 8 June 1819
"[But] Negro Slavery is an evil of Colossal Magnitude…."—letter to William Tudor, Jr., 20 November 1819
"Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the
eventual total extirpation of Slavery—from the US."—letter to Robert J. Evans, 8 June 1819
But here again, George displayed fidelity to conscience and higher principles. Perhaps because he led an army in the cause of freedom from
tyranny and that most absurdly arbitrary of subjugations, monarchy, Washington began to have his doubts about slavery. After the war, he had made up his mind:
I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first
wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in the Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees
.—letter to John Francis Mercer, 9 September 1786
And in this letter to Robert Morris, 12 April 1786, George sounds very much like John Adams:
I can only say that there is a not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery
]—but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, & that is by Legislative authority.
Though eloquent enough, George's forte was always action. In his will,
Washington freed the 123 slaves on his Mount Vernon estate. No one held a gun to his head, no one coerced him, and he did so over the sternest of objections from his wife, Martha.
#1 is easy. No George Washington, no America.
(To be continued)