I paid a visit to chilly Mount Rushmore on my last trip to South Dakota and was stuck by the way the sunlight hit Washington’s face, casting it half in light and half in shadow. It occurred me how little I knew of our first president, whose birthday–with characteristic American efficiency–we combine with Lincoln’s to produce a three-day weekend.
To remedy my lack of knowledge–and perhaps because Americana takes on added interest when you live abroad–I read a biography of our first president.1 And it stuck me just how fortunate those thirteen colonies were to have a man like George Washington as their leader.
By the time he led the ragtag continentals to victory over the British, Washington was admired the world-over as the greatest man of the age. He could, had he wanted, have made a bid for New World Emperor–much as another talented general of dramatically inferior moral worth was to do in France not long thereafter. As a younger man, the ambitious Virginian might well have done just that, but Washington had matured with experience.
However, what really sets Washington apart, as a leader and as a man, are the unassuming virtues. As a general, his record was rather mixed; he lost about as many battles as he won and some of his greatest successes were perfectly executed retreats. But he kept his army, and thus the dream of independence, together. He endured. It’s easy to keep going after victory, not so when successes are unseen.
And, then, of course, when victory was his, the admirer of antiquity chose Cincinnatus and not Caesar to emulate and retired to Mount Vernon. When called back into service, as often as not, he kept his opinions to himself, choosing the common good of holding together the fractious new republic over self-expression. Perhaps that’s why, even today, Washington remains a noble but enigmatic figure.
Of late, tearing down statues has become the peculiar entertainment of the morally self-indulgent and the lightly-educated, so I’m glad Washington’s visage is carved into a mountain. He was human like the rest, but remains a man worth honoring and–for us Americans–with no little gratitude.
1) John Rhodehamel, George Washington, Yale 2017.