Today is George Washington’s birthday, and there’s never been a more important time to recall his legacy. Washington was not angry, immoderate or impatient. In short, his example is instructive for our own angry, immoderate and impatient times.
Washington of course lived in tempestuous and violent times. He was the central figure in two wars and the leading American personality across several decades. He easily could have become angry, immoderate and impatient. Had he been a more common man, he would have become nastier, more bitter, vengeful, narrowly partisan, suspicious, polemical.
Yet Washington was none of the above. He had violent internal passions that sometimes erupted on the battlefield and in councils. Thomas Jefferson, after a volcanic cabinet meeting, recalled him as “Mount Washington.” But he also noted that Washington’s temper receded as quickly as it erupted. And it was not aimed at anybody in the room.
Today it’s fashionable to tie moderation to weakness and harsh polemics to manhood. But Washington assumed the opposite. He was supremely manly, robust, tall, muscular, athletic, inhumanly courageous in battle, calm in crisis, stoic whether under the knife of surgery or swimming through frozen rivers. Yet his understanding of masculine maturity required self-denial, restraint, prudence, caution. If he were on Twitter, he would be boring.
Although he led history’s most important revolution, Washington was a harmonizer, not divisive. He sought consensus within his wider community whenever possible. This perspective guided both his political and military careers. His harmonizing perspective was informed by his life as a large farm owner and member of the Virginia Tidewater gentry. He patiently lived by the seasons for his crops, livestock and fisheries. Such patience required preparation for and endurance of blights and famines and long winters and inexplicable pandemics.
Washington’s lifelong Anglicanism also shaped his desire for practical harmony. The steady and predictable liturgy of the Church of England in Virginia, later replaced by the Episcopal Church, was a ballast against extremism and apocalyptic attitudes. Anglicans generally are not angry, impatient radicals. They think long-term and are not surprised or unprepared for life’s vicissitudes. They don’t typically infuse their politics with dogmatic religious claims. Their attitude is providential. They ask: How is God quietly working among us? In typical Anglican fashion, Washington left no detailed treatise about his theology. Instead, he frequently commented on what was owed to the mercy of Providence.
As a teenage frontier surveyor working among rustic pioneers and native tribesmen, as a military scout and commander in his twenties during the French and Indian War, as a member of the Virginia legislature, as a church vestryman, as Continental Army commander, as chair of the Constitutional Convention, and later as president, Washington relied on the support and consensus of others. He never had the luxury of scornful tirades, extremist positions, or perfectionist dreams. Instead, he was strictly earthly in his goals. How could he bring the most people together for common and attainable objectives? How could he personally inspire confidence in his leadership through honesty, reliability, and measured judgement? He avoided making unnecessary enemies. Washington was chosen for many of his leadership positions by consensus because he was decidedly not erratic. Everyone knew he was steady. There would be no great surprises from Washington.
Washington was Whiggish in his political sensibility. He believed in an historical continuity. Despite presiding over a military and political revolution, he had no illusions about creating a dreamy new perfectionist order. The new American republic he helped to birth was decidedly different from but not disconnected from British constitutionalism. He was an heir to the best of that tradition, whose betrayed principles had precipitated the revolution. The creation of a national republic, along with the dramatic changes in his own Virginia, such as disestablishing the church and ending aristocratic laws of inheritance, were momentous but they naturally flowed from constitutional principles. Like nearly all the Founding Fathers, Washington was not a nostalgic reactionary. As with his farm, he sought constant patient reforms and improvement in society through trial and error. He always sought to be a better steward. Tomorrow should be better than today, he assumed.
His Whiggish attitudes precluded expectations of dramatic resolution of deeply seated political problems for which solutions lacked viable consensus. Washington sought compromise, needing and seeking support from the Continental Congress when general, and similarly from Congress and the Cabinet when president. He was sometimes seen as too cautious and even doddering because of his aversion to controversial dramatic action. Washington preferred to wait for time and Providence to provide at least partial solutions for intractable challenges. His controversial Jay Treaty with the British failed to address Britain’s ongoing violations of its peace treaty with America. But Washington knew war and confrontation would be disastrous. Time was on America’s side, he knew. More controversially now, Washington, who came to oppose slavery, did not push abolition as a public issue, knowing how fragile the early republic was. He instead set the example of freeing his own slaves, and creating the structures of democracy that made eventual abolition inevitable.
Washington was elected to the presidency twice unanimously by the Electoral College, just as he had been the unanimous choice as commanding general and chair of the Constitutional Convention. This stature allowed him to become unifying figure when controversy would have destroyed the nation. He withheld opinions, yielded to situations and persons he did not like, collaborated and compromised, and often communicated by quiet signals. After all, he knew everybody was watching. He could afford no major missteps.
If publicly active today, Washington would be dismissed by many as a feckless and weak moderate, afraid of controversy, overshadowed by louder personalities, incapable of bold action, silent and complicit too often, stodgy, boring, a man of yesterday, lacking fervor and indignation. We think today has challenges that exceed any other time. But Washington lived and saw more drama and trauma than any American today. Yet he was steadfast and at least publicly serene. He leaned on Providence. He was not angry. He had no vendettas. He did not demonize his enemies even when he fought a war against them. He opposed partisanship and even political parties. He publicly ignored insults, even if he inwardly fumed. Only Martha knew his darkest thoughts. He asked of all: Can’t we reason together?
By his death, the hotheads and loudmouths who thought Washington dull and ponderous were mostly forgotten. The country was established, would grow, struggle for a more perfect justice, and influence the whole world. History typically is changed for the better by calm, persistent and patient spirits, not by the angry and discontented. Washington trusted in Providence. His trust was vindicated. And his example is a rebuke to today’s incendiary polemicists who imagine they alone own truth, virtue and wisdom. Who has the wisdom and fortitude to heed Washington’s pattern today?