This February 22 marks the 283rd birthday of George Washington, and there is no better time to reflect on what true leadership is than on the Federal holiday dedicated to the “Father of Our Country.”
Though the celebration of George Washington’s Birthday has unfortunately been clouded by the generic term “Presidents Day” in the public mind, Americans would be better served by trying to understand the life and virtue of the man whom Revolutionary War hero Henry Lee called, “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
There has been an explosion of excellent books in the last few decades covering almost every aspect of Washington’s life, including his military genius, covert operations, post-military career, presidency, and even gardening habits. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sift through the enormous amount material available and find the perfect book.
However, as the United States faces so many domestic and international challenges with seemingly AWOL national leadership, there is no better time to examine the development of the great leader that Washington became over the course of his life. Historian Robert Middlekauff’s new book, Washington’s Revolution: The Making of America’s First Leader, examines how Washington went from being the hard luck colonial commander who unwittingly sparked a world war and lost many battles in his youth, to the triumphant, revered, and universally respected leader of perhaps the most stunning, and certainly most successful revolution in human history.
Middlekauff wrote the highly regarded The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789, the first and one of the best volumes to appear in the prestigious Oxford History of the United States series. He is a master at writing narrative history. Though that work was certainly more comprehensive in its treatment of the Revolution, it is incredibly valuable to any student of history to read about this event through the eyes of a man who did more than any other to make it possible.
While reading Washington’s Revolution it becomes easy to understand why Washington’s leadership proved to be so invaluable to the often desperate revolutionaries of a nascent nation, struggling to survive. His early hardships fighting for the British in the French and Indian War taught Washington valuable lessons about the military craft, but also about how to navigate his way through a political world with strong personalities and oversized egos. By the time of the Revolution, he was ready to take on a leading role to guide his country to success.
“The war had served as George Washington’s tutor, and it drove his development as a soldier and a commander of soldiers,” Middlekauff wrote. “…He was twenty-seven years old when he resigned, a formidable man and a soldier of ability and experience. He was also brave and had much talent in reserve. He did not know it, but he was ready for a major challenge, one that would enrich his life but also transform the world.”
Middlekauff wrote that two of Washington’s most important qualities were his “will and his judgement” and that “they remained firm throughout life. They have to be seen together to be understood; only a few men have them in the proportions found in Washington. His will was an independent force, a compound of energy and hardness.”
Washington’s will, though incredibly strong, was always contained when he became Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, and Middlekauff wrote that this self-mastery “distinguished Washington’s behavior at virtually every critical moment in the combat of the revolution.”
It was this restraint, one of the great man’s many virtues, that made Washington greater than the countless other military chieftains who lead revolutionary causes yet in the end led their people back into the yoke of tyranny.
Middlekauff explains the incredible difficulties Washington faced during the course of the war. He dealt with squabbling and vacillating from the Continental Congress, a woeful lack of supplies, constant desertions from underpaid, starving, and under equipped soldiers, not to mention the threat of his powerful British adversaries. It was nearly a miracle that Washington held his army together over the course of the Revolution, let alone guide it to victory against a fearsome opponent.
Though his army was often struggling for survival, Washington knew when to act decisively and strike his enemy, a trait most apparent in his daring and famous Christmas crossing of the Delaware in 1776 that lead to a tremendous series of victories against the British and their Hessian mercenaries.
In deciding to strike, he yielded to the frustration that had built up as defeat and one retreat after another had occurred. But his motives were not based on unthinking anger or a sense of desperation that implied that rolling the dice was the only action left. He did feel a desperation, but it was softened by a mature sense of how war should be fought and a recognition that the political being of the new nation was in peril, linked as it was to military operations.
Washington was a masterful strategist, but more important than his genius in guiding the Revolution to eventual victory was to ensure that military victories would lead to, but not overshadow, the larger principles that he was fighting for: self-government and the timeless individual rights described in the Declaration of Independence.
“That the American conception of civil supremacy remained firm even when the army seemed the only reliable institution in the war—and its commander the center of authority—owed more to Washington, a general, than to anything else,” Middlekauff explained.
Though Washington found success through military and political mastery far superior to his opponents and contemporaries, he would not become a Julius Caesar or an Oliver Cromwell. Instead, he used his immense talent to guide his revolution to victory, stepping aside once that success had been assured. The combination of duty and deference to civil authority, one that often seemed little deserving, was what made him the perfect leader for the world’s only republic.
German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said of Napoleon Buonaparte, who lead the failed French First Republic that quickly turned again to empire and tyranny, that he “went forth to seek Virtue, but since she was not to be found, he got power.”
Washington, having power, abandoned it because of his virtue, and gave his country the gift of freedom and a constitution that survives hundreds of years after his death. Though the United States may never again see a leader of Washington’s caliber and importance, it is critical that Americans of every generation study and attempt to emulate his greatest traits or we will find that we are no longer living in the republic he created.