Though rarely honored these days exactly on February 22, his actual birth date, “President’s Day “ is actually Washington’s official birthday. And that’s entirely right and proper, as every American should happily honor our first chief executive. What was most remarkable about Washington was the content of his character
Richard Brookhiser rescued this view of our first president in his landmark 1997 book “Founding Father.” Hidden behind myth, written off by revisionists as just another dead, white, male slave-owner, Washington was in fact a man for the ages.
Born a Virginia aristocrat, he carefully cultivated his virtues—self control, moderation, civility; his strengths physical and moral—to become the most widely admired presence first in the 13 colonies, then in the new nation.
He created two American institutions that helped to shape the new American nation.
First was the American army, which he commanded from 1775-1783, organizing a collection of untrained and undisciplined rag-tag soldiers into a fighting force that defeated the world’s superpower, Great Britain.
He also set the future course of the US government itself. Presiding over its first years from 1789 to 1797, he understood he was setting precedents that had to last—even as many disagreed on what precise form that government should take.It was Washington who emphasized that America was a republic when he rebuked those who wanted a monarchy or an exalted president.
Likewise, he set the precedent for presidential limits by refusing entreaties that he accept a third term. Knowing his limitations, he also set the precedent of an executive Cabinet to help administer to a burgeoning nation. He also was the only slave holding founder to free his slaves, albeit after his passing. “Washington’s last service to his country was to stop serving,” writes Brookhiser. For all these reasons and more, there was no dissent when Henry Lee famously described Washington in death as” first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Far-left efforts like the now debunked 1619 Project claim that many Americans have no reason to honor Washington. Far more accurate is the understanding reflected in the musical “Hamilton”: One of the show’s more compelling moments is the entry of Gen. George Washington as the rebels suddenly face 32,000 British troops in the New York Harbor. It’s not just his dramatic, staccato lines” Outgunned, Outmanned, Outnumbered, Outplanned”, but the fact that the actor playing Washington is black. The show powerfully, magically, claims that America’s founders are representative for all of today’s Americans. The principles they fought for belong to us all.
Unlike other notable presidents—Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, JFK, Reagan—Washington left no memorable lines that we continue to quote today. His legacy is that of an inspirational role model.
Lincoln was probably most influenced by the accomplishments of Washington Many argue that Lincoln was our greatest president but I would counter that without Washington there is no Lincoln. Evidence? When Lincoln was a dirt-poor young lad he loved to read but finding books was next to impossible He did, however, find books detailing the exploits of Washington and read those books over and over again The influence of Washington on the Lincoln Presidency is undeniable and Lincoln often credited Washington for being his primary mentor.
On personal and professional levels, permit me to explain how the legacy of Washington has motivated me and the many students who were in my American history class.
Before my father’s passing in 2001, he bequeathed to me a series of laminated letters that his grandmother had written to him when he was at Norte Dame University for naval training during WWII. Though obviously not written in the King’s English, the text of the letters were very revealing and exciting: My family had a link to George Washington!
The exact text is as follows “…..Feb 22, 1944…Dear Grandson Chester…..This is Washington birthday you know this day take me back to when I was a little girl and my Grandmother was alive in our living room we had her father picture hanging on the wall he was a Minister when he was a little boy he used to sit on Washington lap and Washington gave him pennies so that true history he was my Great Grandfather your dad Great Great Grandfather and your Great Great Great Grandfather….”She may have had the exact lineage incorrect as Washington had no children but the historical connection was certified and undeniable.
For the final decade of my teaching career, I would bring these letters into my classroom the first day of school to motivate my students. They wondered why I wasn’t famous and after the initial buzz subsided a bit I assigned them a project to trace their own genealogy. It was my best teaching tool by far and many of my students were hooked by their own personal histories and, of course, the influence of George Washington as a Founder Father of America.