James C. Rees, 32
Resident Director, George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Mount Vernon, Virginia
Washington was great because he was good. By his example,
he teaches us all that armies may best be led and governments may best
be administered by men of sound moral principle.
Despite the strength of our economy, and our nation’s status as the most powerful and successful in the world, in the minds of many Americans, there exists a great deal of concern over the future. Recent surveys, for instance, reveal that 62% of Americans believe that our educational system is getting worse rather than better. This lack of basic knowledge is particularly evident when it comes to history. Educators themselves agree and estimate only one student in ten can be considered proficient in history upon high school graduation. The statistics are startling:
George Washington terra cotta bust by Jean Houdon, 1785
Seven of ten fourth graders believe that Illinois, California, or Texas were among the original 13 colonies.
-Six of ten fourth graders do not know why the original Pilgrims came to America.
-Six of ten Americans cannot explain who the Allies were in World War II.
-One of four Americans can’t name who is pictured on the dollar bill.
This tremendous decline in knowledge about American history can be experienced almost daily at Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, where I am the Resident Director. A few months ago, one of Mount Vernon’s guides was asked by a well-spoken adult to explain “where the mountain was.” It turns out she was expecting to see George Washington, as well as Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt, peering out from South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, right here in Virginia, on the banks of the Potomac.
Not too long ago, on a recent tour of Washington’s home, one of our best educators asked a group of fifth graders, “In which war did Washington lead us to victory?” In a sad display of knowledge and a total lack of enthusiasm, only two students even bothered to guess, and both responded, “the Civil War.”
We should not be surprised by this dramatic decline in knowledge. Fourth-grade history textbooks used in the public school system in Richmond, Virginia, in the early 1960s included ten times more coverage of George Washington than textbooks used in the same classroom today.
Some school systems are not satisfied simply to relegate Washington to a footnote in history—they would prefer to remove him entirely from the annals of history. In New Orleans, the school board recently ruled that all schools named after Washington should be renamed without delay. Why? Because he was a slave owner. This is in spite of the fact that Washington’s feelings about slavery changed dramatically over his lifetime, and that his later writings clearly denounced the institution of slavery. He practiced what he preached by freeing all his slaves in his will.
Washington was by no means perfect. But it is blatantly unfair to lift any figure out of his time and place in history, and examine him by strictly modern standards. To remove Washington from our textbooks is to eliminate the best example of unselfish leadership our nation has ever known. Perhaps more than ever, America needs George Washington—his patriotism, his honesty, his courage and, most of all, his character.
Washington demonstrated these qualities over a period of more than four decades during which he seemed to grow, to learn, to find more inner strength with each passing year. At the onset of the French and Indian War, for instance, Washington led the Virginia militia as it joined General Braddock’s ill-fated mission to the Monongahela. This was by no means a shining moment in Washington’s career. Braddock’s forces were severely defeated; the General himself was mortally wounded. Yet when Braddock fell, all the men around him naturally turned to George Washington who organized the retreat and kept the army from disbanding.
By the end of the battle, five bullet holes were in Washington’s coat, and he was on his third horse. But Washington was an unquestionable hero, even in defeat.
Washington was almost immediately appointed a colonel and given complete command of the Virginia Regiment. But what is truly amazing about this episode in Washington’s life is his age. He was just 23 years old. What qualities did this 23-year-old possess to win such confidence and respect from his much older comrades? At an age when so many young people today are just finishing college and much too often moving back in with mom and dad, Washington was leading an army. It is not surprising that his peers almost immediately recognized that Washington was a truly remarkable young man.
Most scholars agree that Washington revealed his sterling character most dramatically at the close of the Revolutionary War. At this juncture, Washington’s leadership moves to a truly higher plane. Unlike Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte and many other victorious military leaders, Washington willingly and unconditionally surrendered his power just when it reached its apex. When the world expected Washington to take his place as the military ruler of a new nation, he laid down his sword and took up his plow. I believe he did this for one reason and one reason only: it was the right thing to do. Washington truly believed in the principles behind the American Revolution—new concepts such as liberty and democracy—and his commitment never wavered.
Today, we take our freedom so much for granted and accept democracy as so natural, so right, that it is hard to imagine the importance of Washington’s voluntary retirement. But in 1783, it was an earth-shattering event. The highly skeptical King George III, perhaps confident that Washington’s retirement was some sort of scheme, predicted that if the commander-in-chief gives up all his power and returns to his farm, he will be the “greatest man in the world.” For once, George III was right. Just a few years later, when Napoleon lay on his deathbed, defeated and forlorn, among his last words were, “They expected me to be another Washington.”
Even though most modern historians rank Washington as our third greatest President, along with Lincoln and FDR, the average contemporary American thinks of Washington all too often as the sour-looking elder statesman who stares out from the dollar bill. In the 18th century, there was no such confusion. As scholar Garry Wills notes, “To them, he was always the most interesting man in the room even when the other men in the room were Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.”
George Washington oil painting by Rembrandt Peale, 1825
It is not surprising that Jefferson himself felt that Washington was the only sound choice as the nation’s first President. The master of Monticello used these words to describe the master of Mount Vernon: “He was, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.... The whole of his character was in its mass perfect, in nothing bad, in a few points indifferent. And it may be truly said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.”
For decades, no one questioned this assessment. Abraham Lincoln said: “Washington is the mightiest name of earth—long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty, still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name no eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.” The scholar who shared the speaker’s podium with Lincoln at Gettysburg was the former President of Harvard, Edward Everett. In his many speeches about Washington to standing-room-only crowds, Everett often found himself answering the same criticisms of Washington we sometimes hear today—that he lacked brilliance and imagination.
Everett argues quite effectively that the lack of so-called brilliance is not a defect in Washington’s character, but rather a testimony to the perfect balance between Washington’s many virtues. Washington may not have been as brilliant as some of his peers, but his other talents more than compensated. With brilliance comes a certain impulsiveness, a heightened ego that loves to be stroked by others, a rashness that can be as dangerous as it is exciting. Everett points out that Washington’s character was so perfectly balanced that no one quality seems to dominate the others. Washington’s greatness is like a circle, with no sharp points or angles. All its points are equidistant from the center, one leading seamlessly to another, dependable, consistent, always in harmony. As Everett argues, all of Washington’s qualities were founded on the basis of a pure morality. Washington was great because he was good. By his example, he teaches us all that armies may best be led and governments may best be administered by men of sound moral principle.
It seems inconceivable that we would allow the accomplishments of this singular leader to disappear from our textbooks and to fade from the memories of our children and grandchildren. But from all accounts, this may be happening, slowly but surely, right before our eyes.
Can this trend be reversed? Perhaps, but only if those
who understand and appreciate Washington’s greatness begin to share their
knowledge and feelings with others.
Please remember The House of The Temple Historic Preservation Foundation, S.J., USA, with your gifts and in your will, 1–800–486–3331.