Monday, December 14, 2015

George Washington, America's Greatest Leader, Dies 216 Years Ago Today

Two hundred sixteen years ago today (December 14), George Washington breathed his last breaths and slipped into eternity. The death of George Washington marked the passing of America's greatest leader - then and since. To be sure, our nation has been blessed with wonderful leaders, including several of Washington's contemporaries (the men we know as "the Founding Fathers") and many of our Presidents, military leaders, civil rights activists, and religious figures throughout history. But Washington tops them all given the sheer breadth of his experience (political, business, and military) as well as the indispensable nature of his contributions. Without Washington, there would almost certainly be no United States of America today.
While an imperfect man (Washington, after all, was a slave owner - though a progressive one whose conscience led him eventually to manumission), George Washington embodied the highest ideals of character and service. Faced with the temptation of becoming dictator (or perhaps king) after the American Revolution, Washington instead chose retirement. Then the nation's leaders begged him out of retirement to supervise the Constitutional Convention and to accept the presidency under the new Constitution. Washington faithfully served two terms and, once again, turned over the reins of power and headed home to Mount Vernon. 
In this time of political and social division, those of us who love America can only hope that the vast majority of Americans will agree that whatever greatness our nation has achieved in its short history is due in no small measure to the foundation laid by the men and women of the founding generation. And, when one looks at the founding, the figure of George Washington looms the largest. 
In the end, Abraham Lincoln summed up Washington's legacy the best: "To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked, deathless splendor, leave it shining on."


Brad Hart said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Brian, though I do think that Lincoln (personally) deserves every bit the recognition that Washington receives for his amazing leadership abilities.

Perhaps Henry Lee's eulogy really is best: "First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen," but I also love Washington Biographer Joseph Ellis' final words:

"As far as his contemporaries were concerned, there was no question about his stature in American history. In the extravaganza of mourning that occurred in more than four hundred towns and hamlets throughout the land, he was described as the only indisputable hero of his age, the one and only, His Excellency."

Tom Van Dyke said...

And of course, they still talk about the momentous historical occasion when in 1801, John Adams peacefully passed the "crown" to the opposition, Jefferson. But of course it was Washington who started it.

When King George III heard [General] Washington would resign his commission to a powerless Congress, he told the painter Benjamin West: “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Jonathan Rowe said...

And for all your slagging of Jefferson, wouldn't it be he who started the precedent of NOT RUNNING for the 3rd term?

Jonathan Rowe said...

By "precedent" I mean, the "respecting" or "following" the decision of the first party who made it. (Instead of just treating it as an idiosyncratic personal decision not necessarily worthy of following.)

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'll confess a jaundiced view of Jefferson, whom I consider rather a selfish pig. I find it difficult to ascribe higher motives to anything he did, sorry.

UCLA historian Joyce Appleby writes:

Jefferson could have run for a third term in 1808, but opted not to, following the example set by Washington. He seemed quite burnt out by the job. After James Madison was elected in December of 1808, Jefferson did almost no government work. He spent the time boxing up materials to send home to Monticello. The Federal Government was essentially paralyzed.