When he was still alive, many feared he would make himself king. But as soon as he was safely dead, it became clear how generously and unselfishly he had poured out his life for his country. When the news came that Washington had died, many must have felt it like the death of their father, and thousands wore mourning clothes for months.
Forget the cherry tree and the ivory false teeth and the other legends that were invented to raise him up or pull him down in the estimation of posterity. Look at him for what he was, and see what a miracle looks like in real life.
George Washington was born into the Virginia aristocracy, quite content with his station in life. By inclination he was a farmer and horseman, and he had the life he wanted. He was still young when his father and older brother died, leaving him master of his father’s estate. After he married a 28-year-old widow, he became perhaps the richest man in Virginia. All this he jeopardized for his convictions.
Like the other patriot statesmen, he risked life and property, but in addition he forfeited nine years of his life to a long disheartening struggle against impossible odds, and then, after success and only a few years’ respite, another eight years to a political post for which he had little inclination.
We all know the elements of Washington’s career. He was named commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, he presided over the convention that drafted the Constitution, he was the unanimous choice to be the first President of the United States, and the unanimous choice again to succeed himself. There’s much more to his life, as we shall see, but that’s enough to be getting on with.
No one else could have held the revolutionary army together through years of almost unbroken defeat. No one else would have been equally trusted by the common people to lead an untried new form of government. He was the indispensable man.
Why? In a word, character. He had all the aristocratic virtues, and apparently none of the defects. Everyone who dealt with Washington experienced his integrity, his resolve, and his unfaltering intention to do right. That doesn’t mean he never made mistakes. It means he made only honest mistakes.
Washington was not a great intellect, arguably not a great general, not a natural politician, not a good orator, nor are his state documents particularly distinguished, except his farewell address. Yet he seemed to have been designed by God himself specifically to lead the Revolution to success, and then help turn it into an equally revolutionary, but stable, form of government. He was often defeated by British armies, but he never allowed defeat in battle to end the war. He soldiered on, doing what he needed to do to hold the army together. After victory, he resigned as Commander-in-chief and gladly went home.
Presiding, by request, over the Constitutional Convention of 1787, he found himself elected first president of the United States. For his pains, he was rewarded by intrigue from Hamilton’s faction and suspicion from Jefferson’s. When war broke out in Europe at the beginning of his second term, he kept the fledgling republic neutral, and in his farewell address he warned against partisanship, sectionalism, and involvement in foreign wars. In March, 1797, again he gladly returned home, but this time he had less than three years to live. Washington died at home around 10 p.m. on Saturday, December 14, 1799, aged 67. His last words were, “‘Tis well.”
Congressman Henry Lee – “Light-Horse Harry” of the Revolutionary War — eulogized Washington in words that have become immortal:
“First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and enduring scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplarily tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life—although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well-spent life.”
The odd thing is, none of this was exaggerated. Even those who feared him for political reasons admitted as much. Nor was he honored only in America. In France, Napoleon, who was at the time First Consul of the French Republic, ordered 10 days of mourning.
Life, of course, went on. Within weeks, the republic would be bitterly engaged in the long presidential election campaign that would turn the Federalists out of office forever. The century was turning, and Washington was dead. It was the end of an era.