What made George Washington the most remarkable man of an extraordinary generation? He was not an intellectual giant like Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison. Compared with most other founders, he was not well educated (he attended school for only about five years), and, unlike many of them, he disliked abstract philosophical discussions. Washington was intelligent, well informed, and astute, buthe was neither a polished writer nor a spellbinding speaker. Moreover, he was not particularly affectionate, said little in public meetings, and lacked the charisma of many of his successors. Defeating the British with his ragtag army was an impressive feat, but he was not a traditional military hero. He won no spectacular victories during the Revolutionary War. Although he is widely admired as an outstanding president, few of his policies were stupendous successes.
While praising his military and political record, many scholars contend that Washington’s genius lies principally in his character. The only other American president who has been so highly extolled for his character is Abraham Lincoln. Since Washington, all presidents have been ultimately measured not by the size of their electoral victories or the success of their legislative programs, but by their moral character. His character helped sustain his troops throughout the travails of the Revolutionary War, convince delegates to the Constitutional Convention to assign significant powers to the presidency, secure the ratification of the Constitution, and enable the new republic to survive in a hostile world.
Although scholars criticize Washington’s personal ethics, sexual behavior, vanity, and ownership of slaves, his moral character, especially his refusal to yield to temptation, set him apart from most others in the late 18th century. He took the standards of his age very seriously and diligently strove to be virtuous. To many, the crowning achievement of Washington’s character was his simultaneous resignation in 1783 as the commander in chief of the American army and his retirement from the world of politics. Throughout the Western world, his unprecedented relinquishing of power (which he did a second time when he declined a third term as president) was widely heralded. Unlike other victorious generals, he did not expect a political or financial reward for his military exploits. Washington’s character, Jefferson argued, probably prevented the American Revolution from subverting the liberty it sought to establish. The Virginian had a sterling reputation for integrity and honor, dedication to duty and his country, and remaining above the political fray.
Eulogists and early biographers imputed many virtues to Washington. They praised his wisdom, judgment, astounding courage on the battlefield, and dignity. Congress elected him the first chief executive, principally because its members trusted his moral character. Assessments of Washington applauded his military zeal and political passion on the one hand and his self-restraint and civil moderation on the other. Blending Stoic and Christian traditions, eulogists extolled Washington’s perseverance in the midst of setbacks.
Many admirers considered Washington’s self-control the key facet of his character. He could master events because he had mastered himself. Despite being surrounded by fear, despair, indecisiveness, treason, and the threat of mutiny, he remained confident and steadfast. Eulogists also heralded his self-sacrifice, devotion to the common good, compassion, generosity, and benevolence.
As president, Washington strove to establish public confidence in the new government and to demonstrate that political leaders could act virtuously. He believed his character was much more important to the success of the republic than his policies, and he spent much of his adult life creating and preserving a reputation for integrity and uprightness. In 1788, the planter wrote to his trusted confidant Alexander Hamilton, "I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man." His character helped hold the other founders together in the midst of tremendous trials and reassured them that they could construct a workable republic. His example of self-sacrifice, discipline, and moral goodness helped elevate the status of the presidency.
Both as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and president, Washington worked to form an American character. Throughout the War for Independence, he expected both his officers and soldiers to act morally and "display the character of republicans" appropriate to "Christian Soldier[s]" who were defending their country’s "dearest Rights and Liberties." Speaking to the nation’s governors in 1783, Washington argued that Americans could "establish or ruin their national Character forever." As John Winthrop had done in his 1630 sermon "A Model of Christian Charity," Washington reminded his countrymen that "the eyes of the whole World" were "turned upon them." Guided by the complementary principles of revelation and reason, Americans must fulfill their civic duties because they were "actors on a most conspicuous Theatre … peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity."
As we commemorate Washington’s birthday this year, we should celebrate his exemplary character and emulate his commitment to public service and the common good.
— Dr. Gary Scott Smith chairs the history department at Grove City College and is author of "Faith and the Presidency: From George Washington to George W. Bush" (Oxford University Press, 2009). He is also a fellow for faith and the presidency with The Center for Vision & Values.