Paul Jacob

In fact, Washington was never viewed as a military genius in battle. It was his character, his bravery, his perseverance that led him to victory. He was smart enough to wear out the British in many respects. We won the Revolutionary War not because of Washington's military prowess, as one biographer put it, but "because Washington wouldn't give up or go away."

The credibility Washington enjoyed was enormous, and not historically inconsequential. The Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia may never have achieved the public legitimacy necessary to succeed, had Americans not had Washington, whom they trusted implicitly, presiding over the gathering.

We think of the words of Jefferson and Franklin and Madison when we think of the founders. However, we think of Washington's actions. Washington held power and handed it back to the people. Giving up power seems much simpler than defeating the world's foremost military power. But history shows it is not.

Washington served two terms as the first president, but here again it is his disdain for the trappings of power and his leaving of office that are best remembered. For instance, Washington was so embarrassed by the response at events when he would be announced entering the room, that he began to arrive first to avoid the extra attention.

Contrast this with the problem Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had when folks wouldn't stop clapping upon his arrival to give a speech, too afraid of what might happen to them if they were the first to stop applauding. The Soviets eventually developed a system of sounding bells to stop the unending applause. Washington had no such problems.

Perhaps Washington's most important legacy is the two-term presidential limit. Washington could have served on and on, and was urged to do so. Some feared the country would break apart in factional disputes without Washington's strong hand at the helm. (And as readers of my Common Sense e-letter might note, he certainly had "the experience" that today's term limit opponents say is the main reason to keep politicians in power for forever and a day.)

But Washington, deserving of his title as the nation's father, led by example: he stepped down to allow the system of freedom to gain traction free of his persona. His tradition of serving no more than two terms prevailed for almost 150 years, until FDR. Not long after Roosevelt broke the tradition, our Constitution was amended to provide for a mandatory rotation of the presidency after two terms.

Had George Washington the character of Fidel Castro, or any number of other political giants, it is doubtful the words written in the Constitution would have prevented a quick descent into tyranny. After all, most political revolutions are just that: power revolving from one set of rulers to another. Not a struggle for freedom, but for power. As the song says: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

George Washington was a great man. What he did proves his greatness. Or, looked at another way, it's what he didn't do that helped make America truly great.


Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.