As the Presidential primary season unfolds, we keep on hearing various
candidates talk about “leadership”. The question is, what does that mean?
February 22 is an auspicious occasion to reflect on the meaning of true leadership in our American republic — Washington’s Birthday.
George Washington is a hero of mine. I believe he was the greatest American
who has ever lived, and one of the greatest men who has ever lived. He was the
dominant figure at the most important time in our history, when our nation was
being formed, and his impact on our history is incalculable. He was indeed, as
the title of one of his biographies calls him, the “indispensible man”.
In our modern time, we tend to emphasize in our “leaders” the importance of
government experience or business acumen (when we’re not looking for
iconoclastic bluster). While Washington possessed many managerial gifts, his
excellence as a leader were based on something far more important — they
stemmed directly from the quality of his character. There are several attributes
of his character that are worth highlighting, because I believe that they would be
the perfect template for the virtues we need in our modern-day leaders.
Humility — Despite being the most admired and accomplished public figure of
his time, Washington never reveled in his status or stooped to bragging or self-
aggrandizement. Instead, at every point in his career, as he was being asked to
assume greater and greater responsibilities, he took care to speak of his sense of
unworthiness and his fear of disappointing those who were entrusting him with
new duties. One can see this in his statement on accepting his commission as
leader of the Continental Army, his resignation of that commission after
successfully prosecuting the war, his First Inaugural Address, and so on. It is a
consistent theme of his public life — his humility in accepting the duties that his
nation demanded of him, even while he willingly accepted the task.
Self-Sacrifice — Washington always put his nation ahead of his own interests.
Throughout the Revolutionary War, he nurtured a strong desire to return to his
beloved home. He repeatedly quoted the Bible to describe this desire: ” they
shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make
them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Yet, amazingly, his devotion to duty was such that he
visited his estate only once in the eight years of the war, and only near the end,
when the campaign came to Virginia. He tried to retire from public life after the
war, only to be called back to serve as a delegate to the Constitutional
Convention, and again to serve as President. Love for his nation, and a keen
sense of duty, were always his motivating force, never egotism or ambition.
Tolerance — In an age of religious intolerance, Washington was noteworthy for
his liberality. During the war he forbade his soldiers from holding “Guy Fawkes”
events, out of fear that they would offend his Catholic allies, the French. As
President, he wrote one of the most important statements of religious liberty in
our history, his justly famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport,
Rhode Island. He spoke of how the government “gives to bigotry no sanction, to
persecution no assistance”, and promised protection to those of all faiths who
live as good citizens. It is inconceivable that Washington would show any
degree of animosity or hostility to members of any faith who sought, like him, to
be good Americans.
Respect for Rule of Law — Washington always respected his role as a servant of
the people, within the proper role assigned to him by the law. Throughout the
Revolution, he defered to an incompetent Congress, not out of respect for their
abilities, but out of reverence for the rule of law in a republic. His character
alone was enought to allay the fears of many Americans, who were concerned
that the office of President under the new Constitution could become a crypto-
king. His devotion to the law can be best seen in his response to the incipient mutiny of his officers at the end of the war. Congress had refused to pay the officers, and there was a movement afoot to petition Washington to lead the army to Philadelphia to compel Congress to act. He reacted to this by immediately squelching the rebellion, saying that the conspiracy “has something so shocking in it that humanity revolts at the idea”, and calling upon the officers to look with the “utmost horror and detestation of the man who wishes, under any specious pretenses, to overturn the liberties of our country”. By force of his force of character alone, Washington ended the threat to turn America into a military dictatorship, and thereby preserved our freedom.
Piety — While there has been much debate about Washington’s religion, there is
no question that he was a sincere and devout believer in God, and that he relied
on divine providence in all his work. At every significant moment of his public
career, he invoked the assistance of God. For example, in his First Inaugural
Address, he spoke eloquently of his prayer for divine protection of America,
speaking of “my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the
Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids
can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the
liberties and happiness of the People of the United States”. His faith was not a
mere political posture, but a deeply held conviction that God’s benevolent hand
was responsible for the welfare of the American nation.
Nobility — The greatest demonstration of Washington’s nobility of character was
not in the way he exercised power, but how he surrendered it. Indeed, in some
ways the most important day of American history was December 23, 1783, when
Washington resigned his commission to Congress at the end of the war. Rather
than seizing power, as many victorious military leaders had done in the past,
Washington willingly and respectfully turned over the authority that had been
given to him. When hearing that Washington might surrender his office, the
baffled King George said that “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the
world!” But so he did, and so he was, and his last words to Congress are worth quoting:
“I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping. Having now finished the work assigned to 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.”
It may seem impossible that anyone in our debased modern age could measure
up to Washington’s patriotic virtues. But there is a reason that the President can
look out and see the Washington Monument from the Oval Office, and that Congress can likewise see it down the Mall. It is upon the virtue of our leaders that the health of our nation depends. A republic cannot survive if it elects leaders who lack virtue.
Washington’s virtues are the same that we should expect — no, require — from
every one of our Presidents. We cannot afford to demand anything less.