A Word About George Washington’s Reputation
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.”
Of all the characteristics of the Founding Fathers, none has the far-reaching appeal that character produces. While the British were considered “the enemies,” they were far from evil dictators or savages. Thus, they opposed George Washington, and for that matter wanted him tried as a traitor and hanged, but joined the chorus of friends and foes that held Washington in highest esteem. Whether ally or opponent, Washington’s immortal character drew respect from all circles of the world.
Washington’s character was evident to all but especially to the men he was charged to lead. Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s key generals, spoke of his powerful ability to lead men. Once when the rebel troops caught sight of the unexpected presence of their commander-in-chief, Greene commented, “Joy was visible on every countenance, and it seemed as if the spirit of conquest breathed through the whole army.” It was not just the hope he inspired, but the confidence that the man himself brought to the men who followed his leadership. Abigail Adams, wife of Washington’s Vice-President, wrote to her husband: “You had prepared me to entertain a favorable opinion of General Washington, but I thought the half was not told to me. Dignity with ease and complacency, the gentleman soldier, look agreeable blended in him. Modesty marks every line and feature of his face.” Washington’s artillery commander Henry Knox said to his wife of the General that he “fills his place with vast ease and dignity, and dispenses happiness around him.
One of the most intriguing praises of the character of Washington came from the oft-forgotten founding father Gouverneur Morris. Morris, himself the author of much of the preamble of the Constitution, said that Washington had the unique ability to master the inner passions that raged within him. His premise was that Washington was a man of great passion which had the capacity to boil over into a rage. Many an officer and enlisted man were objects of that passion. However, Washington had a unique ability to tame those passions and demonstrate a level of self-control that enabled him to lead with fiery passion and yet not burn those around him. Indeed, the famed portrait artist Gilbert Stuart said of the General, “Had he been born in the forests, he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes.” Washington’s ability to keep those passions under bridle enabled him to lead with ferocity, passion, focus, and yet do so with serenity and a calm needed in great leaders.
From early in his leadership of the army and the nation, praise was heaped on Washington. Early on, Washington, through two letters addressed to him, received the title “His Excellency,” a name he did not shy away from. To say he was unaware of his position, presences, and posterity would be completely false. Washington always knew he was being watched and the praise of others affirmed what he believed to be true. Washington was passionate about what the great historian Joseph Ellis calls his “posterity project.” He wanted his legacy to live on long after his death.
However, it was not only the praise of friends that speaks loudly about the General. It was the praise of his enemies that affirms the greatness of his character.
1 Peter 2:12
12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
It is rare that a person is praised in life by his friends. Those words are most often reserved for the man in death. However, what is even more amazing was the praise of his enemies. The fact that enemies would praise the greatness of Washington speaks as clearly to his character as just about any other example. From opposing soldiers, to enemy commanders, to world leaders, the character of Washington was appreciated by all levels of society. General and Lord Howe, British commanders who had been fighting Washington for several months, said of Washington that though enemies, they held his “person and character in high esteem.”
When King George III heard Washington would, following the victory of the Revolution, surrender his commission and refuse to take control of the nation as a dictator, he told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Even the king recognized the extraordinary nature of this man from Virginia.
This was Washington’s last and possibly greatest accomplishment to the American cause for democracy. Simply put, he retired. He didn’t become king. It was his love of country, but most of all, his character that kept him from becoming king.