Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

George Washington: “First in the Hearts of his Countrymen”

by Phillip G. Henderson

George Washington died in 1799 a decade after the Constitution was ratified, and just two years after serving as the nation’s first President, elected for two full terms. Ron Chernow, who received the Pulitzer Prize for his excellent biography on Washington (2010), notes that Washington “had tumultuous passions which accompany greatness,” but that he worked hard at concealing his emotions and fierce temper. Washington was thus not an “open book” like some of our contemporary presidents.  He was reticent and showed very little emotion.  He also was a man of few words.  Consequently, succeeding generations do not know him as well as they do Abraham Lincoln or Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt.  Yet to his contemporaries, Washington was considered by many to be the greatest living person of the era, and the embodiment of republican virtue and restraint. 

As Richard Brookhiser notes, “we know very little about Washington’s education.” But we do know from his letters, public documents, and contemporary accounts that Washington was a learned man and that he had a particularly rich understanding of history. Washington had the good fortune to have been mentored by Colonel William Fairfax of Virginia, an Englishman who managed the vast northern Virginia land holdings of his cousin, Lord Thomas Fairfax. Colonel Fairfax shared with Washington many books from his private Library.  Richard Norton Smith notes that among the nearly 900 books in Washington’s own library are copies of John Locke’s On HumanUnderstanding, Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Seneca’s Morals, and Addison’s CatoWashington quoted from Cato his entire adult life—most famously in lifting up the morale of the troops by acting out scenes from Cato during the bitter winter at Valley Forge.   

We know that Washington studiously read the Roman Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, as compiled by the Jesuits because we have Washington’s notebook as a young man where he copied down many of these rules in his own handwriting. It is clear from his letters and behavior that Washington committed many of these rules to memory and practiced them.

Dr. Matthew Spalding, the Dean of Hillsdale College’s Washington, D.C. program, notes that Washington’s habitual adherence to the Rules of Civility reflected his commitment to the “unremitting practice of moral virtue” as an indispensable part of character development.  In a letter to a family member, Washington wrote: “It is highly important that you endeavor not only to be learned but also to be virtuous.” 

Washington’s education was, as Spalding notes, “primarily practical.” There can be no doubt that Washington’s vast practical experience as a member of the House of Burgesses, as a militia commander during the French and Indian War, as General of the Army during the Revolutionary War, and as the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, helped shape and refine the already considerable talents that he possessed. Washington’s development in the crucible of war and politics undoubtedly reflected what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he said that “forty years of experience in government is worth a century of book-reading.”

Chernow notes that, compared to his major rivals for command of the Continental Army, Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, Washington had “superior presence, infinitely better judgment, more political cunning, and unmatched gravitas.  With nothing arrogant or bombastic in his nature, he had the perfect temperament for leadership.” Washington’s dignity, modesty, patriotism, and integrity were hallmarks of his service to the nation as the victorious General of the Army during the War for Independence, and solidified the bonds of affection and respect that Americans held for him. 

Contemporaries often assessed in their letters Washington’s innate qualities of leadership. In 1775 Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician, wrote that Washington “has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general and a soldier from among ten thousand people.” Noting that he had known Washington “intimately and thoroughly,” Thomas Jefferson remarked in a remembrance written in 1814: “His person, you know, was fine, his stature exactly what one would wish, his deportment easy, erect and noble; the best horseman of his age, and the most graceful figure that could be seen on horseback.” But what Jefferson remembered most about Washington was his character, which he wrote “was, in its mass, perfect. His integrity was pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.” Jefferson concluded, “It may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.”

Washington had achieved such great eminence in his illustrious service to the nation in the War for Independence that the office of President of the United States was practically a step down for him. Indeed, Washington’s reluctance to serve as the nation’s first chief executive had to be overcome by the persistent pleas of James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and others.

After his unanimous election to the presidency, Washington had hoped to enter New York (the nation’s first capital) quietly and inconspicuously.  However, a crowd of thousands of citizens had gathered in the streets to greet him, and there were many ships with flags and banners in the New York Harbor to honor him. 

Washington was keenly aware that his every action would set precedent for future Presidents and would establish the foundations of the Office of the Presidency.  He wrote to Madison: “As the First of everything in our situation will serve to establish a precedent, it is devoutly wished on my part that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.”  At his Inauguration ceremony, Washington bowed to both Houses of Congress—a mark of respect not shown by the King of England before Parliament.   And as historian Forrest McDonald notes, Washington understood that the office of President would be dual in nature, “Chief Executive officer but also ritualistic and ceremonial Head of State.” In this sense, Washington fused the dignity of a King with the efficient elements of government associated with a Prime Minister. 

Among his many precedents, Washington delivered the first State of the Union address in person before Congress. Jefferson abandoned this precedent only to have it revived a century later by Woodrow Wilson. Washington also was the first President to invoke “executive privilege” by withholding sensitive information from Congress on the negotiations of the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. Perhaps, most importantly, Washington established the precedent of serving only two terms in office, a precedent that stood until Franklin Roosevelt, a war-time leader, sought third and fourth terms. 

John Marshall, the great Chief Justice who fought under Washington’s command in the battles of Brandywine, Germantown and Monmouth, and was with Washington at Valley Forge, articulated his admiration for Washington in his Eulogy to the nation.  Noting that Washington’s “various talents, combining all the capacities of a statesman, with those of a soldier, fitted him alike to guide the councils and the armies of our nation,” Marshall elaborated on Washington’s character drawing special attention to his keen sense of judgment:  “Possessing a clear and penetrating mind, a strong and sound judgment, calmness and temper for deliberation, with invincible firmness and perseverance in resolutions maturely formed; drawing information from all; acting from himself, with incorruptible integrity and unvarying patriotism; his own superiority and the public confidence alike marked him as the man designed by heaven to lead in the great political as well as military events which have distinguished the era of his life.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the connection between military service and political leadership? Why should we be skeptical that those who didn’t serve in the military might not make for good leaders?
  2. Ford and Carter both served in the Navy, but since then, other than George H.W. Bush, our presidents haven’t been noted for their military service, if they served at all. What does this suggest about the direction of our politics?
  3. How did Washington demonstrate the connection between character and leadership? What might have happened to the country if someone such as Aaron Burr had ascended to the presidency early on?
  4. Should we accept leaders who have poor character? Why or why not?

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