IF ASKED WHOM I think was the greatest man who ever lived -- meaning a man who by a combination of his own character, intelligence, force of will and abilities affected great affairs to the benefit of mankind -- I would with little hesitation say that it was George Washington. Moreover, one means by such greatness that no other man of whom one can think could in his position have done so well.

One of the sillier judgments of Washington is that offered by a historian of deservedly slender reputation. Among the Founding Fathers, he wrote portentously, "Washington is not important, except as a symbol"; he was "one of those men whose great place in history is fortuitous." Stupid as this judgment is, it nonetheless clings at the back of people's minds, as if Washington was just an accident.

The truth is rather in the judgment of one of the best of his biographers, James Thomas Flexner, who calls Washington, with no embarrassment, "the gentlest of history's great captains, one of the heroes of the human race." Or we may echo the tribute of Abigail Adams, who wrote to her son John Quincy after the Farewell Address: "Take his character together, and we shall not look upon his like again."

Let us consider this man of hot and even violent temper who, nevertheless, by what has rightly been called a prodigious and almost unique exercise of character, developed in himself, in the service of his country, such inexhaustible reserves of calm judgment and unflinching steadiness in action. No one can read of his life without realizing that here was a man who forged his character to meet his country's needs.

When Tom Paine visited the Continental Army in 1777, he said of Washington: "There is a natural firmness in some minds which cannot be unlocked by trifles, but which, when unlocked, discovers a cabinet of fortitude." But the firmness was not only natural. When one considers his early hot-headed conduct in the French and Indian Wars, one understands how resolutely over the years he wrought that "cabinet of fortitude" in himself.

At moments of great disturbance, he would retreat in to silence. On being told in August 1775 that here was only enough powder for less than nine rounds a man, "for half an hour, he did not utter a word." Five years later, when his army was unpaid and starving, one of his generals wrote, "The great man is confounded at this situation, but appears to be reserved and silent." In those silences the indomitable will was forged.

Such fortitude is not made without a truth. All of Washington's early life was a preparation for his country's hour of need and his own destiny. He never went or wished to go to Europe. He only once briefly left continental America to go to the West Indies. From his earliest days as a stripling surveying the frontier, his eyes were always turned west to the huge land that beckoned with such promise.

Henrietta Liston, the wife of the British minister to the United States after 1796, said of him: "His first and last love appeared to be farming." She was not wrong. It has been said that his character can be read in the stones of Mount Vernon "as paleontologists deduce a dinosaur from inanimate bones." One need only go there to put in place the fripperies and gimmicks of Monticello.

Monticello is foreign. Mount Vernon is American. The first time that an American walked me into its grounds 17 years ago, I took one look at the house and then the land that stretches so green and far in front of it and said: "Now I know what you Americans were fighting for -- you wanted this!" Most of Washington's life was an unending sacrifice of the familiar pleasures he found at Mount Vernon.

The farmer's love of the land merged into an attraction to nature which "amounted to love." Not only did he become a devotee of landscape painting, but the only paintings other than protraits which he bought were American views. Washington did not find his image of America in abstract principles or political tracts. He left those to others. His sense of America sprang from the ground beneath his feet, and burned in the blue-gray eyes that gazed so long and so lovingly on the waiting land.

He had a passion for acreage. As soon as the British had cleared the French out to the north, he said that a gentleman would be out of his mind if he did not scavenge for land. When he prepared his last will, he made a list of his evaluated landholdings, and came to the total of $488,137, several millions in today's currency. But in his passion for acreage was also a vision of a country yet to be made.

What was common to his leadership as a general and his statesmanship as a president was this sense of a continent that could and must be forged into a nation. From the moment that he took command, he wanted an army that represented more than one region, that was indeed a Continental Army. He threatened with punishment "any officers or soldiers so lost to virtue and a love of their country" as to engage in regional quarrels.

The principle that he pursued as president was already laid down by him as a general in 1780: "Unless the states will content themselves with a full and well-chosen representation in Congress, and vest that body with absolute powers in all matters relative to the great purposes of war and of general concern ... we are attempting an impossibility and very soon shall become (if it is not already the case) a many-headed monster, a heterogeneous mass, that never will steer to the same point." He would today have questioned the "new federalism."

As the army was disbanded in 1783, he wrote that he intended "taking a more contemplative and extensive view of the vast inland navigation of these United States ... I shall not rest contented till I have explored the Western country and traversed those lines (or a great part of them) which have given bounds to a New Empire." Of all the Founding Fathers he was by far the most American. His country was the caked mud on his boots.

It is said that he saved his country twice, as general and then as president, and of course there is much truth in that salute. Yet it must not make us overlook the consistency of the vision that directed him in both roles. In his sense of the continent was the truth that forged the will, and nourished the reserves of calm and steadiness, He was not made great by the time in which he acted; he made himself great enough to meet the time.

This is not the place to catalogue either the scores of times when one simply does not believe that any other general, not even Napoleon himself, could have so inspired and brilliantly led such a ragamuffin army of ill-paid and ill-shod and ill-tempered troops; or the equal number of times when as president he guided the new country through the treacherous shoals of personal ambitions and partisan bitterness.

Any man who could hold the ship of state on course when he was surrounded by men such as Jefferson and Adams and Hamilton -- to mention only the most prominent, and by no means the most awkward -- indeed earns him the title of a consummate statesman and the Father of his Country. Nothing is more painful to read in his whole life than his unwilling arrival at the conclusion, at the time of Jay's Treaty, that no other than a friend and a Virginian in the person of Edmund Randolph had betrayed him. Yet he did not shirk the truth.

When one considers only the nuts and bolts of the presidency as the first made it in two difficult terms, one finds so much with which he had first to experiment and almost always did so with a sure hand. From his conduct of his cabinet to the use of the presidential veto, and in scores of other ways, he made the presidency, in the atmosphere of the 18th century, a strong (but not autocratic) and modern institution.

Painting him, Gilbert Stuart wrote: "All his features were indicative of the strongest passions, yet, like Socrates, his judgment and self-command made him appear of a different cast in the eyes of the world.... Had he been born in the forests ... he would have been the fiercest man among the savage tribes." From youth to maturity, through as hard a life as any man has chosen for the good of others, the picture is the same.

He wrote as true an epitaph for himself as any: "To struggle with misforture, to combat difficulties with intrepidity, and finally surmount the obstacles which oppose us, are stronger proofs of merit and give a fairer title to reputation than the brighest scenes of tranquility or the sunshine of prosperity could ever have afforded." As Flexner says: "For him depression was never despair." He never despaired -- of men, or the times, or his country.

In 1780, the French officer and courtier, Count Axel de Fersen, on meeting Washington, said: "He looks the hero." So indeed he does -- the more so, the more we know of him -- even reading now his own eloquent, vehement, but always measured words. For a man who had little schooling, he had a commanding speech that astonishes, Yet the final tribute is that, hero as he was, we think of him first as only human. A man like us -- a hero

That is why he is greater than Alexander or Caesar or Napoleon, it is also why no plays are written about him.