With Feb. 18's being Presidents Day and Feb. 22's being the actual day George Washington was born, I thought there would no better time to honor the man I consider to be one of the greatest leaders ever born. And I'm going to take a few weeks (columns) to do it.
Let me begin by highlighting a few background notes for some who might not be so familiar with this pillar of American life beyond the basics, as documented by the University of Virginia and the History channel.
On Feb. 22, 1732, George Washington was born to a family of middling wealth in Westmoreland County, Va., the second son from the second marriage of a Colonial plantation owner.
In 1752, Washington joined the British army and served as a lieutenant in the French and Indian War.
In 1759, he married Martha Dandridge Custis, a wealthy widow, and adopted her two children.
In 1775, at age 43, Washington became the commander in chief of the Continental Army, and in 1783, he led America to victory over the British after eight years of war.
As far as his political career goes, Washington served as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses from 1759 until 1774. He was also a member of the first and second Continental Congresses in 1774 and 1775. But while others were signing the Declaration of Independence, Washington was already on the battlefield, fighting for independence. As the president of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, however, Washington was the first signer of the U.S. Constitution.
In 1789, Washington became the first president of the United States of America. He was elected unanimously by the 69 presidential electors to serve his first term, which was from 1789 to 1793. He was elected unanimously again for his second term, from 1793 to 1797. He declined a third term.
So here are my top 10 reasons I wish George Washington were still alive and why I believe the model of his life is still worthy to shadow today. (These are also the reasons I often cited in my New York Times best-seller "Black Belt Patriotism," which has an expanded paperback edition.)
10) Even as a youth, Washington was a role model for many. At just 14, George wrote out in freehand by his own volition "110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation." At 17, George's first official job was as the official surveyor of Culpeper County, Va.
9) Washington epitomized courage. While others were frightened by their signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington was on the front lines, battling for its tenets. He faced his fears, endured grave hardships and even stared death in the eyes while helping others to do the same. Who can forget the severe conditions of Valley Forge? And what about the repeated threat of personal injury?
Washington even dodged bullets on several occasions. The University of Virginia documented a few of them: "at Braddock's Defeat where two horses were shot under him and he had four bullets in his clothes; at the final skirmish of the Forbes expedition, on November 12, 1758, where he rushed between two parties of British who were firing at each other; at Kip's Bay skirmish on September 15, 1776, where he rashly exposed himself in an attempt to rally the militia; at the battle of Princeton, January 3, 1777; and when making a reconnaissance of the British after the landing at the Head of Elk on August 26, 1777."
8) Washington wasn't afraid of public opinion or challenging the status quo. As History's website explained, "he struggled with advisors over what sort of image a president should project. He preferred one of dignity and humility and stumbled when encouraged to act out of character or monarchical. ... A member of the Virginia planter class, he grew increasingly uncomfortable with the hypocrisy of owning slaves, yet publicly he promoted a gradual abolition of slavery. In his will he requested that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death." As far back as 1786, Washington wrote, "There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of (slavery)."
7) Washington was a man of integrity and character yet just as human as the rest of us. History explained: "Washington possessed that intangible quality of a born leader and had earned a reputation for coolness under fire and as a strict disciplinarian during the French and Indian campaign. ... An extraordinary figure in American history and unusually tall at 6'3", Washington was also an ordinary man. He loved cricket and fox-hunting, moved gracefully around a ballroom, was a Freemason and possibly a Deist, and was an astute observer of the darker side of human nature. His favorite foods were pineapples, Brazil nuts (hence the missing teeth from cracking the shells) and Saturday dinners of salt cod. He possessed a wry sense of humor and, like his wife Martha, tried to resist the vanities of public life. Washington could also explode into a rage when vexed in war or political battles. Loyal almost to a fault, he could also be unforgiving and cold when crossed. When Republican Thomas Jefferson admitted to slandering the president in an anonymous newspaper article for his support of Federalist Alexander Hamilton's policies, Washington cut Jefferson out of his life. On at least one occasion, Washington's stubbornness inspired John Adams to refer to him as Old Muttonhead."
Next week, I will discuss a few more controversial aspects about Washington's life, such as his family values. For more on the monumental figure, I recommend the amazing book "George Washington's Sacred Fire," by Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe.