Two hundred and twenty-one years ago, our country lost the man widely regarded as “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
In 1799 — the year of his passing — very few Americans would have disputed Washington’s greatness. To everyone living at that time, George Washington was “the father of his country,” and thus, when Washington breathed his last, most Americans mourned as they would the death of their own father.
Times have changed.
Statues of George Washington today are as likely to be vandalized or destroyed as they are to inspire a moment of reflection or nod of gratitude.
Many Americans today loathe and despise their own country’s origins, heaping scorn on the men we know as “the Founding Fathers.”
Students in our schools — particularly in high school and higher education — are more likely to learn of and focus on the sins and shortcomings of America’s past, rather than hear of the many positive contributions of our Founders, especially Washington.
Yet on this 221st anniversary of his death, I can’t stop thinking of how much I wish we could bring Washington out of his tomb, revive his body, and benefit from his wisdom.
We Need our Dad
Consider the fact that our nation is perhaps more divided in 2020 than it has been at any time since the American Civil War.
Not only are we increasingly polarized on questions of justice, fairness, equality, and equity, we can’t even agree on our definitions.
Heck, we can’t even agree on elections — even after they happen! A substantial number of Americans (including the President himself) believe the recent presidential election was rigged and that our democratic system has been compromised.
We also can’t even agree on whether we can consider our nation “good.” There are many people today, who though they may not question the results of the just-passed presidential election, nevertheless believe that the United States itself is fundamentally flawed, our heritage is irredeemable, and our Constitution should be replaced.
We need national leaders who strive to unite the nation, and not divide it. We need leaders who guard both their hearts and their tongue.
We need leaders who understand human limitations, nuance, and complex thought. And we need leaders who seek out and listen to wise counsel.
We need leaders who do not crave or lust for power, and who put the country above themselves. We need men and women who are honest, humble, and strong. We need leaders who are wise, deliberate, and sacrificial.
We need leaders like George Washington.
The Greatness of George Washington
It was Washington who, against all odds, led the often ill-equipped, insufficiently trained, and outnumbered American Continental Army to victory in the American Revolution.
It was Washington who resisted calls to be a king or dictator, thus ensuring there would not be an American monarchy. And it was Washington who quashed a few would-be uprisings from within the Continental Army — including the Newburgh conspiracy, thus saving the newly independent United States from a military-led junta and from catastrophe.
It was Washington who presided over the Constitutional Convention, giving those deliberations legitimacy and their product (the proposed Constitution of the United States) the support it needed for ratification.
It was Washington who then served as the nation’s first President of the United States under the new Constitution, stabilizing the new nation and its economy, fleshing out the executive branch, establishing precedents that sustain us to this day, and clearly establishing American neutrality and determination over our own affairs.
And it was Washington who voluntarily walked away from power a second time, refusing to consider a third term as President, thus confirming the tradition of peaceful transfer of power.
We wouldn’t even have a country today without George Washington.
There’s a reason why respectable historians almost universally agree that Washington was truly the “indispensable man” in American history — certainly at America’s inception.
Without George Washington, there would be no United States of America.
There certainly would not be a free and prosperous United States of America — one that respects (at least until now) democratic processes, freedom of speech and thought, the rule of law, separation of powers, and economic opportunity.
The Sins of the Fathers
It is of course at this point that we hear all about Washington’s sins and failures.
Yes, the men we call “the Founding Fathers” were sinners.
Like every other human being who has ever lived, our Founders made mistakes as well as poor choices. They did things they shouldn’t have done and failed to do things they should have done. They were imperfect and flawed.
And the same thing can be said for you and me.
While not everyone reading this shares my Christian faith, it doesn’t take a religious person or a Bible scholar to confirm the validity of what the Apostle Paul told the church in Rome 2000 years ago, specifically that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
It’s easy to pick out certain sins and shortcomings in historical figures while ignoring our own. I wonder what future generations will say of us.
Obviously, some sins are more grievous, hurtful, and consequential than others. And perhaps the biggest sin of the American founding era was slavery.
But neither slavery nor the racism that underlined it was unique to the United States. You will find examples of and degrees of racism, exploitation, and oppression — yes, even slavery! — in just about every culture or people group throughout most of recorded history.
The men we know as the Founders were born into and raised within a white supremacist society that accepted slavery as part of the natural order of things.
To what extent do knowledge, awareness, time, and cultural influence factor into a person’s culpability?
Is it fair to judge 18th century men by “woke” 21st century standards?
Don’t get me wrong. Slavery is unquestionably the most tragic blight on our nation’s history. And it’s the most tragic sin marring the legacy of George Washington.
But while we can (and should) learn from the sins of the past so that we can hopefully better resist temptation in the future, when it comes to understanding the Founders themselves…it’s far more interesting and constructive to judge them to their own conscience.
And this is when we see a remarkable (though sometimes three-steps-forward-two-steps-back) journey for Washington.
George Washington became a slave owner at age eleven. He continued in that status until his death. Early in life, and leading up to the Revolutionary War, he showed little qualms about slavery.
Washington’s views on slavery began to change, however, during and especially after the American Revolution. Henry Wiencek explains that Washington’s “actions and private statements suggest a long evolution in his stance on slavery, based on experience and a possible awakening of conscience.” Wiencek is a journalist and historian whose work includes the award-winning An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2004).
In the years following the war, according to Wiencek, “slavery’s injustice weighed very heavily on Washington’s conscience” and the general referred to his ownership of slaves as a “regret.”
In 1778, Washington wrote that he wanted to “get quit” of owning slaves. In 1786, he declared that there “is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for this abolition of [slavery].” And in 1794, he described himself as “principled against selling negroes, as you would do cattle in the market.” In 1799, the year of his death, he wrote: “I am principled against this kind of traffic in the human species.”
And of course, in his will, George Washington famously ordered the freeing (and, in some cases, compensating) of his slaves. Sadly, there were legal and family complications, but the publicizing of Washington’s will placed him squarely on the side of those who (in the words of Abraham Lincoln) wanted to put slavery “on the course of ultimate extinction.”
There are many today who of course cannot forgive Washington for his participation in slavery and consider his final act against slavery to be “too little, too late.”
While I understand this view, I would argue that it is yet another example of how our society needs more mercy, grace, and forgiveness.
I would also point out that many of the enslaved persons freed by Washington seemed to forgive him — some coming back later to honor him (and Martha).
It’s also moving to read Bishop Richard Allen’s tribute to George Washington. Allen was the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. And when Washington died in 1799, Allen (like many other pastors) took the opportunity to eulogize the nation’s father from his pulpit.
After acknowledging Washington’s hero status for the nation overall, Allen specifically addressed his African American congregation with these words:
We, my friends, have particular cause to bemoan our loss. To us he has been the sympathising friend and tender father. He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity– his heart was not insensible to our sufferings. He whose wisdom the nations revered thought we had a right to liberty. Unbiased by the popular opinion of the state in which is the memorable Mount Vernon–he dared to do his duty, and wipe off the only stain with which man could ever reproach him.
Allen is often praised for his clever use of Washington’s death (and the publicizing of Washington’s will) to call for the abolition of slavery as America neared the 19th century. As he should be.
What should also not be ignored is that Allen doesn’t challenge Washington’s hero status. And neither did future civil rights heroes like Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels, Booker T. Washington, or Martin Luther King, Jr.
And neither should we.
“Let us Raise a Standard”
We should all take some time to learn from George Washington today.
George Washington was human. And therefore, like all his contemporaries and all those living today (including you and me), he was imperfect. He was flawed. He made mistakes. He sinned.
But George Washington did much to conquer his fears, shortcomings, and limitations. Through discipline, grit, wisdom, and determination, Washington made something of his life — and positioned himself on one of the greatest stages of human history. And we are better for it.
Washington’s sacrifices and his steady hand of leadership made possible the United States of America we live in and benefit from today.
Now more than ever, we need his wisdom. And we need men and women today to be inspired by his courage, his patriotism, and his character.
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington wrote a letter to the various states urging their ratification of the document — a document that would, if accepted, replace the Articles of Confederation.
In his letter, Washington used a soldier’s analogy when he said: “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair.” In 18th century warfare, battle flags — or “standards” — were used on the battlefield to rally troops and properly position them for battle.
Washington believed the American people of his day (and posterity as well) should raise the Constitution of the United States (and the principles that made it possible and all that it represented) as such a standard.
Were he with us today, I believe he would encourage us once again to rally around those principles, our Constitution, and indeed our nation itself rather than political parties (“factions” he called them), personal interests, extreme tribalism, cults of personality, or petty grievances.
If you value the United States of America, now is the time more than ever to rally to that standard. That standard, to steal a phrase from our Pledge of Allegiance, is the “flag of the United States of America” and “the republic for which it stands.”
Let’s raise that standard. Let’s rally to it. And let’s stand by it.
And in doing so, we will honor the man who made it all possible.