Leadership Lessons of George Washington

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What can one say about George Washington that hasn’t already been said? Sometimes people think we paint the Father of Our Country in larger than life colors. In fact, George Washington was larger than life, and that’s a truth that needs to be continually emphasized. Not only was he tall in stature and well-built compared to his peers, but his stoic disposition commanded respect. It is that disposition, and the wisdom of his character, that makes our first president such a model citizen – one that we should neither be afraid to pattern ourselves after nor be afraid to expect our fellow citizens to pattern themselves after. If this expectation sounds a bit “larger than life,” then you understand the true impact of George Washington upon our nation. [Editor’s Note: Some of the quotes contained herein feature misspellings, improper grammar, and usage conventions different from what we experience today. We present them in their original form to lend flavor to their authenticity.]

George Washington was born February 22, 1732 on his parents Pope’s Creek Estate (near what is today Colonial Beach, Virginia). Well, I cannot tell a lie. He was actually born on February 11, 1731. At the time England was using the Julian calendar and Annuciation (a.k.a. “Lady Day”) Style where the new year began on March 25th. England finally joined the rest of Christendom in 1752 and began using the Gregorian calendar (with January 1st now designated as the start of the new year). Thus, the old “February 11, 1731” now becomes “February 22, 1732” and that’s the day we once designated as a holiday to celebrate George Washington’s birthday.

“Washington’s Birthday” became a national holiday in 1879 through an Act of Congress. In 1971, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act shifted it to the third Monday of February, meaning we no longer celebrate “Washington’s Birthday” on Washington’s actual birthday (because the third Monday of February can only fall on dates from February 15th through February 21st. Still, though many call it “Presidents’ Day,” the official name of the federal holiday remains “Washington’s Birthday” (although different states may have different names for it).

Of all the presidents, George Washington stands alone in the eyes of Americans. This respect dates back to the very beginning of our country. Here’s an example. Shortly after Abraham Lincoln’s death, his former law partner William H. Herndon began interviewing as many of Lincoln’s acquaintances as he could find. Herndon wanted to capture the memory of Lincoln from primary sources. These letters and correspondences eventually found their way into the Library of Congress and were compiled in the book Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln (Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, editor, University of Illinois Press, November 1, 1997). One such memory involves a story Lincoln told repeatedly about Ethan Allen’s fictitious visit to England following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War. The story not only reveals Lincoln’s ability to relay the raw humor of the common man, but also tells you everything you need to know about the persona of George Washington. Here’s what Abner Ellis, a friend of Lincoln, wrote (warts and all) to Herndon in 1866:

It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it

and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his friend in the Back House.

Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone.

Neither Ellis nor Lincoln (nor the common man) included the asterisks, but the sensitivities of the common man in the mid nineteenth century were quite different than the sensitivities of the common man (and woman) of the early twenty-first century. One thing that appears consistent through the centuries of American generations is the adulation and awe George Washington generates.

Lesson #1: The Truth (and the Courage to Tell It) Shall Set You Free
When George Washington was ten years old his father gave him an axe for his birthday. Eager to use it, the young lad found a willing specimen in his father’s cherry tree. When confronted by his father about the deed, Washington admitted, “Father, I cannot tell a lie… I did cut the tree with my hatchet.” Relieved by George’s honesty, his father gleefully hugged him, declaring, “Son, your honesty is worth more than a thousand cherry trees.”

The funny thing about this story that rejoices in a little boy’s willingness to not tell a lie: the story itself is a myth. Mason Locke Weems, a minister seeking to tell a moral tale, fashioned this story in The Life of Washington, one of the first biographies about the Father of Our Country. The lesson, despite being apocryphal, proved too powerful to ignore. It quickly went “viral” (to use a contemporary term) and soon found itself as a center point in the now famous children’s books McGuffey’s Readers. In 1836, Presbyterian minister William Holms McGuffey published the anecdote in his Eclectic Second Reader.

We don’t know if George Washington ever really did chop down that cherry tree, or if he always told the truth to his father (who died when George was only eleven), but we do know this: If George Washington ever did chop down a cherry tree, and if his father ever did confront him about it, George Washington would have told the truth. That’s the man he was. That’s the man who helped forge our great country. That is the man we want our children to respect, admire, and, if at all possible, pattern their own moral behavior after.

Lesson #2: Respect is the Highest Compliment One Can Give
At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, George Washington emerged as the embodiment of the promise of America. He valued the reputation he had rightfully earned and wished to avoid entanglements that might tarnish that character. One of those potential entanglements was the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Delegates tried to coax Washington to preside, but preferred his status as “common citizen.” Besides, he had an inkling of two probable outcomes. The first would be that the effort would fail and he would become associated with that failure. The second was that it would succeed and he would be chosen to lead the country following the Convention and he did not want to be accused of a power grab. It wasn’t until he received word of Shays Rebellion that the direness of the situation struck him.

In many ways, Washington was perfectly suited to preside over the rambunctious delegates. His stoic nature had him serve primarily in the role of observer, allowing others to consume themselves in the mire of partisan debate. He would only step in when objectivity was required.

It was the overwhelming sense of this stoic attitude that cemented the unvarying respect of the delegates. Nothing shows this more than this anecdote from James Parton’s 1874 book Life of Thomas Jefferson (p.369):

When the Convention to form a Constitution was sitting in Philadelphia in 1787, of which General Washington was president, he had stated evenings to receive the calls of his friends. At an interview between Hamilton the Morrises, and others, the former remarked that Washington was reserved and aristocratic even to his intimate friends, and allowed no one to be familiar with him. Gouverneur Morris said that was a mere fancy, and he could be as familiar with Washington as with any of his other friends. Hamilton replied, ‘If you will, at the next reception evenings, gently slap him on the shoulder and say, ‘My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!’ a supper and wine shall be provided for you and a dozen of your friends.’ The challenge was accepted. On the evening appointed, a large number attended; and at an early hour Gouverneur Morris entered, bowed, shook hands, laid his left hand on Washington’s shoulder, and said, ‘My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well!’ Washington withdrew his hand, stepped suddenly back, fixed his eye on Morris for several minutes with an angry frown, until the latter retreated abashed, and sought refuge in the crowd. The company looked on in silence. At the supper, which has provided by Hamilton, Morris said, ‘I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.’

The power of this respect can be seen in this story told by Georgia delegate William Pierce:

When the Convention first opened at Philadelphia, there were a number of propositions brought forward as great leading principles for the new Government to be established for the United States. A copy of these propositions was given to each Member with the injunction to keep everything a profound secret. One morning, by accident, one of the Members dropt his copy of the propositions, which being luckily picked up by General Mifflin was presented to General Washington, our President, who put it in his pocket, After the debates of the Day were over, and the question for adjournment was called for, the General arose from his seat, and previous to his putting the question addressed the Convention in the following manner, –


I am sorry to find that some one Member of this Body, has been so neglectful of the secrets of the Convention as to drop in the State House a copy of their proceedings, which by accident was picked up and delivered to me this Morning. I must entreat Gentlemen to be more careful, least our transactions get into the News Papers, and disturb the public repose by premature speculations. I know not whose Paper it is, but there it is (throwing it down on the table), let him who owns it take it.” At the same time he bowed, picked up his Hat, and quitted the room with a dignity so severe that every Person seemed alarmed; for my part I was extremely so, for putting my hand in my pocket I missed my copy of the same Paper, but advancing up to the Table my fears soon dissipated; I found it to be the hand writing of another Person. When I went to my lodgings at the Indian Queen, I found my copy in a coat pocket which I had pulled off that Morning. It is something remarkable that no Person ever owned the Paper.

When you’ve earned respect, you find you don’t need words to convince someone, your very stature is enough to persuade them.

Lesson #3: A House Divided Cannot Stand
George Washington knew too well the foibles of people. He once wrote to John Jay in a letter dated August 15, 1786, “We must take human nature as we find it, perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” With this in mind, it’s easy to see how Washington might express skepticism regarding any political venture. Along these lines, and in advance of the Constitutional Convention, Washington said “Jealousy and local policy mix too much in all our public councils for the good government of the Union. In a word, the confederation appears to me to be little more than a shadow without the substance.” (letter to James Warren: Date: October 7, 1785)

Indeed, even after the success of the Constitutional Convention, Washington told the Marquis de Lafayette (in a letter dated February 7, 1788) the outcome was “little short of a miracle.” This did not erase his anxiety regarding the nature of mankind, but he did see a way to address his concerns. He wrote a letter to John Armstrong (April 25, 1788) stating, “[T]he first transactions of a nation, like those of an individual upon his first entrance into life make the deepest impression, and are to form the leading traits in its character.”

He went public with these sentiments a year later at his First Inaugural Address (April 30, 1789), when he warned of the dangers of partisan politics: “No compact among men . . . can be pronounced everlasting and inviolable, and if I may so express myself, that no Wall of words, that no mound of parchment can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.” In that same speech, he offered this solution: “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens, and command the respect of the world.”

George Washington knew the success of a nation, an army, or any organization depended on the ability of all its members to align along one universal objective. He had seen firsthand the deadly effects when an army was split in two, either physically by natural barriers or emotionally by psychological barriers. By his second term of president he was seeing this factionalization impede his own administration. He warned of this lust for control in his Farewell Address (September 19, 1796) when he said, “The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position.”

But Washington was too old (and probably angry at his subordinates who would soon replace him) to sugar coat his admonition. He targeted precisely what he felt would lead to the destruction of the Union. He said, “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party generally… The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it… A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

In his last formal speech as president, reaffirmed the single unifying characteristic that transcends partisan politics, that unifies all factions, that must be remembered and remembered again by each succeeding generation: “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”

Or, as he told James Warren in a letter nearly two decades earlier, (March 31, 1779), when the idea of “America” had yet to be settled: “Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!”

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