July 4th is a special, sacred time of the year to remember what America is: a land of freedom and democracy. This year, perhaps now more than ever, is a time to reflect on the rights and freedoms that are so often taken for granted.
The last year has been a trying one for many people. America is struggling to find its way after electing Donald Trump, a man who denounces truth and shouts down those who exercise the First Amendment. A man who seems determined to widen the cracks and divisions we see today and denounce the freedoms that many died to defend. A man who’s temper tantrums and rants are ‘modern day presidential,’ a weak defense for behavior that would lead any sane person to strip him of the highest office in the land.
In short, Trump represents everything that the American Revolution fought against, so I’d like to shine a light on America’s first true leader: George Washington, the father of the nation
George Washington was an honest, decent man who enjoyed all things in moderation. A true gentleman and a proud Virginian landowner, he would drink only in moderation and was a regular patron of the theater with his later letters referencing lines from Shakespeare. He was deeply interested in classical history, studying Ancient Greek and Roman history, an interest that can be clearly seen in many aspects of America’s political structure. George Washington saw military action as a British officer in the French and Indian War (also known as the Seven Years War), but it was the American Revolution and the growing conflict between Great Britain and the Thirteen Colonies that saw him take the first steps to greatness.
After the narrow defeat of New York, Washington took his battered, hungry army to Valley Forge. He did more than train them though; he suffered with them. Some would recall Washington walking through his camp, wearing little more than a simple cloak, talking to his men and encouraging them, handing out whatever food was available. Seeing his men suffer from cold and hunger, with the government divided and unable to provide much assistance had a profound effect of Washington.
Washington would lead his men over the Delaware in a risky surprise attack against the British, the success of which provided a much-needed morale boost to his weary soldiers. The men under his command would learn from Washington’s example as a leader and would see the suffering he saw, men like Alexander Hamilton who would carve out their own place in history. George Washington led his men into more successes, culminating in the Seige of Yorktown and the almost-unthinkable; the surrender of British Redcoats to American rebels.
Then came the Newburgh Conspiracy when the Continental Congress, having no money to pay their soldiers, decided to disband the army to save money. The army responded by plotting mutiny, a situation that infuriated Alexander Hamilton, now a member of the Congress. He wrote a warning to his old commander Washington who organized a meeting with the army leaders. Washington launched into a pre-prepared speech and then drew out a letter from Congress.
Washington squinted at the letter for a moment, then he pulled out a pair of spectacles and begged his men to forgive him for having to use them, stating that ‘I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in your service.’ This simple gesture broke his soldiers and many wept openly. In that moment, they were reminded of why they loved him so much. They remembered how he suffered with them, of the victories he led them through. Before he’d finished the letter, they swore to stand with him and pledged their faith in Congress.
Then, despite having a huge army at his back and the love of the nation, Washington decided that he would rather retire and live out his life as a private citizen. This was a hugely significant gesture since many expected Washington simply take over as the leader of the nation, but he knew better than to become America’s first dictator.
He had fought for America to become a republic and as far as he was concerned, that was what it needed to be.
The quiet life did not last long as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison began to work on a new Constitution that would dictate how the new nation would govern itself. Madison asked Washington for advice and over time, managed to persuade him to sit in on the meetings. Washington accepted and he presided over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, eventually becoming the first President and the only one to date to receive a unanimous vote from the Electoral College at the time.
After that, he worked to unify rival factions, remaining above party politics and never joining a specific party. He bought about a decade of peace, worked to establish a working federal government and ensured a peaceful transition for his successor. He would never make a decision without talking it over with the various department heads and seeking wise conusel. His Farewell Address is perhaps his greatest work, warning against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. He urged them to remember the values that had helped forge the nation, to strive towards uniting the people rather than divide them and to always embody the values that a citizen in a republic should uphold.
His last years were spent in his home in Mount Vernon, living out the quiet life of a private citizen until his death in 1799.
This July, let us celebrate and honor the memory of this genteel Virginian gentleman who changed the course of history.
George Washington is not just an American hero or even a Founding Father, he is perhaps the best example of what real leadership is. Everything from the Presidental Oath to the term ‘Mr. President’ can be traced back to him. Throughout his life, he was widely revered and respected as a leader and as a human being in general, something reflected in the Newburgh Conspiracy and his unanimous election as President. His personality shines through his actions and we should all take note.
Let us all strive to follow his example, to unite the rival factions and help protect and defend both the country and Consitution he helped create. Let us remember Washington and the Founding Fathers who, through almost impossible odds, helped to create the United States. Freedom, democracy, and liberty are not merely abstract ideas, but fundamental truths. Like all good things, they are vulnerable in times of crisis, especially in these darker times. They must be safeguarded and nurtured, just as they were during the Revolutionary War.
George Washington is perhaps one of the great leaders of the United States of America, if not the world, and we should respect and nurture the dream he held, a dream that can be found in the Preamble of the Constitution:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Happy Independence Day!