The new country probably could not have come into being without foreign help — from France and from individual foreign soldiers and volunteers, some drawn by the vision of a government chosen by the people. And it seems certain that it could not have succeeded without steadfast leadership and courage in the person of George Washington. His story has been told many times, but it’s worth revisiting today, in a time when the concept that guided him through military victory and two terms as president — the concept of “honor” — is so lacking in much of our public life.
“His modesty is astonishing to a Frenchman,” said one Frenchman of Washington. “He speaks of the American War, and of his victories, as of things in which he had no direction.” Historian Gordon Wood writes that Washington “epitomized everything the revolutionary generation prized in its leaders. He had character and was truly a man of virtue. This virtue was not given to him by nature. He had to work for it, to cultivate it, and everyone sensed that.”
Washington had genuine, self-acknowledged doubts about his ability to assume leadership in the Revolutionary War, but he knew he had to do it. He also knew how important it would be to the country and the world that he be perhaps the first “strong man” in history to voluntarily yield his power — until he was compelled by popular demand to take the new office of president.
“No wonder he seems to us so remote,” writes Mr. Wood. “He really is. He belonged to a world we have lost, one we were losing even while he lived.” That’s not entirely a bad thing. Washington, like most of his Southern gentlemen peers, had enslaved people working for him — a lot of them. Unlike many of his class, he developed a deep loathing for the institution of slavery and sought, through his will, to free all those people he could — there were legal entanglements — and to protect the others from being sold away.
But the best of his era is not lost to us. We can think of figures from our own time who have shown the same true sense of honor and obligation, who have set an example of respect for justice and for human decency — who have, in short, done what they feel is the right and honorable thing as a matter of principle. Actually, there are a good many of them, even in this much-maligned city that bears the first president’s name. Some of these men and women we see in the news; most are known only to those with whom they live and work quietly for the betterment of their country.
The revolutionary forces were beset from the beginning not only by a mighty British military machine but by the usual scourges of war: death, desertion, discouragement. Through it all, Washington kept his faith in the cause and helped inspire others to overcome their fears and doubts, which were, for many people, considerable.
The well-known memoir of a young soldier (quoted in David McCullough’s “1776”) captures some of that spirit. John Greenwood, a former fife player newly enlisted in the ranks, was hurrying to join in the battle on Bunker Hill — he was 16 years old and very frightened — when he encountered “a Negro man, wounded in the back of his neck . . . and, his collar being open and he not having anything on except his shirt and trousers, I saw the wound quite plainly and the blood running down his back. I asked him if it hurt him much as he did not seem to mind it. He said no, that he was only to get a plaster put on it and meant to return. You cannot conceive what encouragement this immediately gave me. I began to feel brave and like a soldier from that moment, and fear never troubled me again during the whole war.”