Washington's character... and America's

Posted: Feb 23, 2005 12:00 AM

If it were true, snorted the still smug monarch, "Then Washington is the greatest man in the world."

And it was true.

George Washington had just led the rag-tag American army to victory over Great Britain, then the most powerful nation and army on the globe. But it was what Washington did after America's victory that prompted King George III's sarcastic declaration.

That was the news King George couldn't bring himself to believe. What man would win a revolution and then, with an entire nation his for the taking, refuse to grab that power, the king's crown?

After leading us to victory, some American military leaders wanted to make Washington king of the new nation. But Washington quickly squelched these efforts by immediately resigning his commission as the commander of the army and returning to his farm. Actions speak louder than words. There would be no king, said the man who could have been king.

Washington showed enormous character in commanding the military forces, yet it was the character he showed in the political arena that was most unique. It engendered admiration and respect from people throughout America and the world.

For instance, the great Napoleon was seen as "no Washington." Taking power after the French Revolution, Napoleon became emperor and spewed death across Europe. On his deathbed, he lashed out at his critics, bemoaning that they wanted him to be "another Washington." No doubt.

Certainly, Washington's reputation was built on more than one event. In the French and Indian Wars, he commanded the Virginia Regiment. In one battle at Fort Duquesne, he had two horses shot out from under him and still climbed aboard a third and continued the battle. Years later, again at Fort Duquesne, a battle erupted mistakenly between two contingents of the Virginia Regiment. When Washington saw this deadly mistake he rode between the lines of soldiers who were firing at each other to stop them. Amazingly, Washington was not shot, though 14 soldiers died in the fracas. Washington's bravery was never forgotten.

During the Revolutionary War, it was amazing that Washington could even keep the army together. Always low on provisions, a less respected figure would have seen far greater desertion and morale problems. And, too, Washington's stature helped him get more support out of Congress than another might have.

But when Congress couldn't provide Washington with what he needed to feed and clothe his army, they told him his army could "commandeer" food and supplies from those they passed throughout the countryside. Washington's good judgment and character made him refuse to institute such a program.

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.