Today is Presidents’ Day in the U.S., a day in which we primarily celebrate our first president, George Washington. After reading the article “George Washington’s Tear Jerker” in The New York Times, one might ask, was Washington really the great leader he has been made out to be? I asked myself that question during the summer of 2002 and began a journey to unpack truth from myth. I went as far as contacting and speaking with Edward Lengel, the foremost historian on Washington’s generalship. After doing my own research I wrote the following which became one of the chapters on 20 leaders in Fired Up or Burned Out.
First in Their Hearts
Richard Neustadt, Presidential Scholar at Harvard University, observed the following about George Washington: “It wasn’t his generalship that made him stand out . . . It was the way he attended to and stuck by his men. His soldiers knew that he respected and cared for them, and that he would share their severe hardships.”From the time he was a young man, George Washington kept a personal rule book to remind him of the behavior that he aspired to live out each day. Many of the rules reflect that Washington valued human beings and they capture the respect and deference he accorded others throughout his life. Some entries read: “Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those who are present”; “Speak not when you should hold your peace”; “Use no reproachful language against anyone”; “Submit your judgment to others with modesty”; “When another speaks, be attentive”; “Think before you speak”; and “Be not so desirous to overcome as not to give liberty to each one to deliver his opinion.”
Like many other great leaders who inspire their followers, George Washington placed a high value on people as human beings rather than treating them as human doings. The historian Edward G. Lengel described Washington’s leadership during the extraordinarily cold winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge as “sacrificial” and noted that “he took great care in seeing that his soldiers were well housed.” Historian Henry Steele Commager noted Washington’s sacrifice for America was supported by the facts that he served as commander of the Continental Army without pay and was nearly bankrupt by the time he returned home to Mount Vernon after serving as the country’s first president. On one occasion when approached by soldiers who wanted to overthrow the wartime government and set up Washington to lead the country, he met with them and made it clear that the thought of overthrowing the colonial American government was repulsive to him and under no circumstances would he consider it.
When King George III of England heard the news that Washington resigned his military commission without seizing power following the Revolution’s conclusion, he was said to have commented, “If it is true, George Washington is the greatest man in the world.”
The selfless behavior of Washington connected people with him as their leader because it promoted trust. When a leader demonstrates that he or she is leading for the sake of the mission and the people, rather than for self-serving purposes, people naturally become more trusting.
George Washington’s character reflected humility. He had a reputation for being quick to listen and slow to speak. During the Revolutionary War, Washington listened to the advice of his war council, a group of soldiers who reported directly to him, and their advice helped him avoid what would have been costly mistakes. During the Constitutional Convention over which he presided, Washington rarely said a word other than to intervene and make decisions to break a logjam in the deliberations.
Washington was motived by a cause greater than self and knew how to inspire others by appealing to that cause. He was committed to American independence and frequently referred to it as “our glorious cause.” His love of America and personal sacrifice for it inspired others. With all the brilliant individuals surrounding him—John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and others—Washington was the one to whom they indisputably looked as the greatest leader among them.
Under Washington’s leadership and the culture he helped create, connection among the colonists united them to defeat the preeminent military power of their age and set the stage for a new nation to emerge.
Although it is not mentioned in the above piece I wrote, while researching Washington I came across a story about Barbara Tuchman, the two-time, Pulitzer Prize winning historian. Mrs. Tuchman, as she liked to be called, had a sharp mind and passion for truth. Fellow historians such as David McCullough hold her and her work in high esteem for the quality of her writing, her unrelenting pursuit of truth in history and what wisdom we can discern from the lessons of our past. While writing her final book, which was about the American Revolution and entitled The First Salute, Mrs. Tuchman struggled and was frustrated with failing eyesight. With the help and encouragement of her daughter, Mrs. Tuchman persevered. During the times when she struggled, Mrs. Tuchman and her daughter adopted a motto to boost their spirits. The motto was “Think of George.”