I have recently completed a highly acclaimed biography of George Washington called The Real George Washington. My expectation when I began this biography was that the admiration that I had for Washington would be tarnished by the inevitable human imperfections that plague us all. The worshipful admiration I had as a school boy would make way for a grownup up respect laced with cynicism.
I am glad to tell the world that a deeper study of Washington only makes his character seem more ascendent than before and my admiration of him even more profound. Here we truly do have one of the greatest men that ever lived, not because he achieved a list of accomplishments that the world expects of great men, but because he had principles. Not only did he have principles, but he lived them out. Not only did he live out his principles, but he did so with a knowledge of his own imperfections.
To the highly educated man of the 18th century, Washington’s education was unimpressive. Thomas Jefferson wrote “…his education was merely reading, writing and common arithmetic, to which he added surveying at a later day.” Washington himself was embarrassed by his lack of education. Additionally, Jefferson commented on Washington’s shortage of “invention or imagination” as well as inability to speak effectively in public situations.
How did a man of such evidently little political talent achieve the pinnacle of achievement? The answer is a word commonly used in our contemporary cultural language – VISION. In the same eulogy quoted above, Jefferson describes Washington’s mind as “great and powerful, without being of the very first order..” and “sure in its conclusion.” Patrick Henry marveled as his “solid judgment” and, most telling, James Madison once wrote that his mind was “capable of grand views.” When taking these descriptions together, we get a picture of a man who was very capable of leading, but always as an arbiter of the ideas of other men.
This leadership ability was reflected in the fact that George Washington was usually one of the first men to take a bold position. For instance, like most colonists, he entered the conflict with England in hopes of achieving an understanding with the British government that would allow the colonies to continue as subjects of the king. It did not take him long to determine that this outcome was not practical due to the remoteness of the colonies to London and the patronizing attitude of the British government. Therefore, Washington became one of the first men to champion a permanent break with England.
Throughout his career a theme repeated itself. He was never the most intelligent, most philosophical, or most educated man in a debate. However, he had an amazing ability to see the benefits that an independent republic would have on the rights of man. He may not have been a writer of great works that showed new ways of thinking, but he could envision the practical results of these principles being applied correctly better than any man who ever called himself an American.
The part of Washington that is perhaps the most unconventional is his character, which most men who encountered him called nearly perfect. Of course, he was not perfect. He was known to get angry at times. However, over the course of a lifetime he is described as having benevolence, dignity, generosity, honor, modesty, optimism, patience, perseverance, self-discipline, etc. In addition, he would always ask the advice of other men and after much deliberation would make his best decision. Once decided, he would tenaciously pursue excellence and overcome all obstacles as he executed his policy.
Washington was believed to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It was well known that he spent much time in prayer and his impeccable character are the mark of a man who was striving to emulate his savior. The Bible clearly teaches that we can identify Christians by the fruit that they produce. Even if George Washington wasn’t a true believer, a man could not have a better example of Christian behavior in a secular setting than George Washington. I have certainly been inspired to emulate him.