Washington: The Forgotten Man

Peter W. Schramm

April 1, 1996

Try this test on any student you know: What have you learned about George Washington? He will respond by saying that he was the first president and that he had wooden teeth. Maybe he will add that he was the American General during the Revolutionary War. And that’s it.

This ignorance of the man and his great deeds should be shocking to us for two reasons. First, George Washington was a man among men. His character was such that others (including mighty ones like Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson) were in awe of his tremendous capacities and virtues. Second, he really was the “indispensable man” of the Founding generation. Everyone recognized that the Revolutionary War would not have been won without him, and the Constitution could not have been framed without his presence. It was necessary for the best among them to preside over this “assembly of demigods” (as Jefferson called those at the Constitutional Convention). And they all knew that in order to make this new republican regime work, he would have to be the first President. The Electoral College twice voted for him unanimously. As President he was conscious that every decision he made would set a precedent and be an example to “millions yet unborn”; he act
ed accordingly, including declining the offer for a third term. Children, cities, and states have been named after him. At his death the House of Representatives passed resolutions honoring him, which end: “…to the memory of the MAN, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” That is high and comprehensive praise indeed.

A new biography by Richard Brookhiser, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington (The Free Press), successfully attempts a “moral biography” of the hero in just under two hundred pages. It ought to be required reading for everyone, especially teachers and students. Brookhiser explains why the MAN should be held in awe still and forevermore. He rightly makes Washington a teacher of morality. Not just morality by precept and principle, but morality by example. The individual and his purposes, his choices and judgments and actions are what he is concerned with. Although the author considers Washington’s career and what it means to be a father of a country, he emphasizes the MAN and his character, as he should.

This large, graceful, and good-looking man had a temperament like the horses he rode. As Brookhiser puts it: “A high tone can be anger, it can also be courage.” His self-control, his successful guidance of his passions, are at the core of his being. He rarely lost his mighty temper, but everyone knew he had one, and they were afraid of it. This sense of latent anger, a suppressed force, is related to his courage, which was something to behold. He also deliberated well, acted decisively, and then took full responsibility for his actions. No second guessing, no circumspection, no apology. His men in the army, and everyone who ever worked with him, honored him and loved him.

He was a reserved man; civil. He honored others, as he would have them honor him. He seems even more cold and austere to us today then he did to his contemporaries, but they didn’t mind a distance between the MAN and them for they knew that he was superior to them. We, of course, are incapable of wonder and awe. If we see greatness, our first inclination is to bring it down. For we feel good about ourselves only if we think there is no one better. And after all, the most important thing is to feel good about ourselves. Besides, he had wooden teeth!

In my classes, I’m in the habit of referring to the Founders by their first names. I will ask, for example, “What would Jimmy and the boys think of that?” I do this as a bow to the age. The students feel a bit more at home with Madison and his colleagues when I make them more common; students are more likely to listen to their arguments, and even befriend them. But I could never bring myself to do that with the Father of the our country. He is always Mr. Washington. Brookhiser explains why I should continue doing this.

Peter W. Schramm is Director of Special Projects at the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.

Peter W. Schramm is Director of Special Projects at the Ashbrook Center and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.