The National Catholic Review

As a young surveyor, George Washington would likely never have imagined the man he would become. Like many a youth, he dreamt of a meaningful life, a life of purpose: a life of some notoriety. When he was trudging through unclaimed land with his measuring instruments in tow, there were many things he had to brush aside besides tree limbs and high grasses; he had to force his way through the doubts and insecurities that lay within him about his future. Like a sculpture in the making, he was raw material, ready to be molded and then perfected—only he did not know how, when or if that could happen. For him, the if was the great unknown. Given the great physical bearing and presence that nature bestowed upon him, his inner being had yet to catch up to equal his physical prowess. That development was the great work he set out to do and he would spend a lifetime toward its completion.

He could not know that the George Washington of the tidewater plantation country would evolve into the George Washington, “The Father of His Country,” the one who would become the man of many “firsts”—the firsts of Major-General Henry “Lighthorse Harry” Lee’s later funeral oration: in war, in peace and in the hearts of his countrymen. That assessment would not come until far into the future after having spent a life in the achievement of great deeds, the greatest of which was defying a monarch and the mightiest kingdom on the face of the Earth in order to establish something that was never imagined in the mind of man up to that time: a nation of United States dedicated to the principles of a democratic republic.

For a time, his greatest ambition was to be the ruler over his dream home, Mount Vernon. Destiny had other ideas, in that he became the first to rule over his dream country, America. In between those dreams, he purposely evolved to become the man that we know of today, the revolutionary general who became our first citizen president, who, in retiring—voluntarily and without precedent in world history—surrendered the reins of power to the astonishment and dismay of many, not including that very monarch he rose up against and defeated in the fields of battle and ideas.

The title of the biography by James Thomas Flexner described him succinctly: The Indispensable Man. For his country, he was that because of his personal commitment. He was able to hold the country together because he had a greater hold on himself, for the simple reason that he was a fallible human being. The stoic Washington had a great, almost volcanic temper which could have destroyed him if he had let it. Though he was a shrewd and perceptive man, he was not as well-educated as the other Founding Fathers were: he was embarrassed by that fact. And if he really knew what his associates John Adams and Thomas Jefferson felt about his intellectual abilities, he would have been further mortified. Though he had a practical cast of mind, he could be cunning when he had to be. 

But it was his self-knowledge that saved him. That may have been his most important personal characteristic. Knowing who he was, he did what he could to perfect himself. Knowing what he didn’t know, he did what he could to improve himself. Knowing his self-doubts, he sought the company of his betters so that he could know the “arts” of polite society and thus acquire those social graces he would need in order to be accepted and respected. So he studied, read, wrote and observed.  His eventual greatness was buttressed by humility, modesty, civility, patience and reserve. Those were his real “weapons” that helped him win the wars in his life, whether they were the battles on the field or those in his own soul.

Before he could govern a nation, Mr. Washington had to govern himself. Throughout his life, he lived by certain precepts that he wrote down from time to time and often meditated on. For example, on trusting others: “Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.” On foreign relations: “Observe good faith and justice toward all nations. Cultivate peace and harmony with all.” On patriotism and reputation: “Guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism…. Associate with men of good quality if you esteem your own reputation; for it is better to be alone than in bad company.” Most important of all to Mr. Washington was this desire: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.”

What would Mr. Washington think today if he surveyed the country he helped to create? What would he think of its accomplishments—and the intransigent problems that continue to nag at our national resolve and defy solution? And, more poignantly, what would he think of those candidates who now seek to occupy the office he once held, the office he once sought to bestow “character”?

We cannot know what George Washington would do, say, or think in our present circumstances, for we cannot summon him forth from the soil of Mount Vernon. But we can do the next best thing: apply the “weapons” he used as a means of overcoming the adversities and challenges that always vex our resolve: those of humility, modesty, civility, patience and reserve. In addition, he relied on faith to give him courage to find his way through. All these qualities were utilized in the formation of a man and a country; perhaps they can do so again. These were the lessons “The Father of His Country” bequeathed to his posterity—lessons we need to learn anew if we wish to maintain the greatness he wanted his country to have before mankind—and history.