Today, February 22, 2018, is George Washington’s 286th birthday. We asked some of our editors and contributors to reflect on George Washington, his role in American history, and the importance of celebrating this day. Enjoy their remarks and please feel free to post your own thoughts about George Washington on his birthday (Old or New, J. L. Bell will explain)!
J. L. Bell:
Americans started to celebrate George Washington’s birthday in the middle of the Revolutionary War. The first commemoration to be noted in newspapers occurred on February 11, 1779, in Milton, Massachusetts. The next was in Williamsburg, Virginia, in the same year, but eleven days later, on February 22. The two dates reflected how people born in the British Empire before 1752 were still adjusting to the shift of the calendar that year. Washington had been born on a day that the Julian Calendar designated as February 11, 1731 (Old Style). The same day under the Gregorian Calendar was February 22, 1732 (New Style). So which date should Washington’s admirers celebrate? For years different communities chose different dates. As late as 1799, the town of Alexandria, Virginia, observed Washington’s birthday on February 11 even though he wrote about “my birthday” as “the 22d.”
If you read only one of Washington’s thousands of writings, I recommend his understated but elegant resignation address to the Continental Congress after the Revolutionary War. Unequivocally, Washington publicly recognized the primacy of civilian leadership over the military, which is a bedrock principle of American government today. However, distinctly different from many leaders today, nowhere in his three-hundred word address did a modest Washington take personal credit for victory or extoll his many successes. Most prominently, he highlighted and praised subordinate officers and urged Congress to recognize their critical contributions. Magnanimously, he handed his original officer’s commission to the President of Congress, Thomas Mifflin, a former major general and critic who advocated replacing Washington in the dark days of 1777. Finally, underscoring his respect for the supremacy of Congress, Washington physically bowed to the delegates before departing the chamber.
This dramatic and heroic example of subduing one’s self-importance for the greater good of the nation is one of the principle reasons why we continue to celebrate Washington’s Birthday over two hundred years after his death. Washington’s resignation provides a timeless model for today’s leaders and citizens to focus on what matters most, not on their ego gratification.
I believe that Washington’s birthday is one of our most important national celebrations. Among our national holidays, Washington’s birthday, especially for those who do not receive it as a work holiday, is too little taken notice of. But it should not be so, primarily because of the immense debt we owe as a nation to Washington: for his perseverance and generalship in the Revolutionary War (when many others might have faltered or failed) thus ensuring the independence of the United States; for respecting the authority of Congress throughout the war and resigning his commission to Congress at its end (confirming civilian control of the military); for his presidency of the Constitutional Convention; for serving as first president of the United States (a job he could have declined) during which time he established numerous precedents for the office; and for stepping down after two terms as president (thus establishing that presidents should not be reelected for life). All these things firmly established important aspects of our democracy. He is known as the father of our country for precisely these reasons.
For Washington’s birthday this year I searched for clues about the general in the war diary of a distant grandfather of mine, Sgt. Simon Giffin. In June 1777 Giffin left his home, wife and three babies in Wethersfield and proudly marched off “to join the grand Army of General Washington.” Despite unimaginable hardships, dangers, and privations over the next six years there is never a moment of doubt, hesitancy, questioning, or wavering about the cause or the General in his journal. He recorded without complaint the many hardships the army endured: the lack of pay, provisions, and supplies, the endless marching, camping, and drilling, the rush to build lodgings and fortifications, the sudden fire-fights, and the sometimes harsh discipline, all accomplished in heat and humidity, snow, rainstorms, floods, fierce nor’easters, and even a hurricane. His commitment to the cause, like General Washington’s, never wavered. Perhaps a French observer, Gen. Jean Francois Chastellux, said it best in his Travels in North America 1780-82: “the zeal, perseverance, and honor which shone forth in the American Army, in the most arduous and extraordinary circumstances, almost surpass credibility … This army is composed of all nations, yet they seemed to be pervaded but by one spirit and fought and acted with as much enthusiastic ardor as the most enlightened and determined of their leaders … General Washington … brave without temerity, laborious without ambition, generous without prodigality, noble without pride, virtuous without severity.”
Neither I nor Sergeant Giffin could put it better. Washington was an inspiration as a military leader, a president, and a human being. We were so fortunate!
Nancy K. Loane:
We celebrate the life of one of our greatest Americans—George Washington, who turned forty-six at the Valley Forge encampment (Martha Washington celebrated her forty-seventh birthday there). Not only was Washington a great leader, but he was also a good, kind man who cared deeply for his family, respected his soldiers, and fought hard for his country. Washington had a strong sense of decency, obligation, and responsibility, but this came with a price. Indeed, one of his officers at Valley Forge wrote that the General was “The most unhappy man in the world.” As Americans we celebrate George Washington for never giving up, never giving in, and always fighting for the cause of freedom. Happy Birthday, General!
George Washington’s birthday: a day that is now most often lumped into President’s Day—to a greater or lesser extent, depending on where you live. While on the one hand the name “President’s Day” obscures Washington’s individual birthday, it is perhaps actually a very fitting tribute to the man whose own presidential terms set the stage for his successors. Ask any American about George Washington and you will likely hear “the father of our country.” What exactly does that mean, why does George Washington receive this honorific title, and is it deserved? After all, as any student of the Revolutionary and early national period will tell you, the founding of the country was far from a one-man job and the tendency to focus on the major players obscures the roles of other founders, some now all but forgotten. Moreover, increasingly the flaws of the founders surface and the days of hagiographic biography come rapidly to a close. Even among this upheaval of long-held notions, however, one would be hard pressed to deny Washington’s influence (both militarily and politically), his leadership skills, and his displays of dignity and wisdom. Washington’s birthday allows the opportunity to reflect upon his leadership, sacrifices, ardent support of the Constitution, and his role in establishing the country and developing the role of the president with influence that continues today. Washington’s ingrained reputation as the father of our country may on the surface make him seem a less exciting study than some of the lesser-knowns who are now coming to the forefront, but in actuality this is an exciting time in terms of scholarship all around—and this includes Washington. Whether it is his military service, presidential terms, intimate life, intellectual history, or his contributions outside of the country’s foundation, perhaps Washington’s birthday is a good time to pick up a book or two and reconsider the man’s life and legacy.
Whenever I am in London I will inevitably eat my lunch in Trafalgar square and simply watch the world go by. In one of the more obscure corners stands a statue of George Washington, a present to the people of Great Britain from the Commonwealth of Virginia. I have noticed that late at night this statue attracts scores of homeless people who sleep on the grass surrounding it. I am not sure why they choose this spot. There are certainly more comfortable places around and any number of monuments. It may of course be just a coincidence. But I would like to believe they rest here because as “Father of his Nation,” Washington still personifies to the homeless, the weak and the dispossessed the same sense of protection, dignity and hope he did over two centuries ago.
It’s Monday, February 19, and as I glance at the calendar I see it’s Presidents Day, a holiday signed into law in 1968 by the Uniform Monday Holiday Law. Being older, I think back to when we used to celebrate Washington’s Birthday on the 22nd—a holiday created in the aftermath of the American Revolution’s centennial and intended to serve as a reminder of the struggles that created the United States. Then I think how the effort to honor George Washington and his fellow revolutionaries has morphed into something much more ethereal with little connection to the original purpose. In my younger days, I worked as a technician for a Volkswagen dealership and I have burned into my memory the store’s owner refusing to give us Washington’s Birthday off because it was “the biggest day in the automotive sales business.” Here’s the classic example of how we treat our national memory: someone we used to view on a high pedestal is now relegated to part of a sales pitch. With the elimination of Washington’s Birthday as its own holiday, a significant reminder of arguably THE greatest hero from our nation’s seminal experience is now missing from our lives. One more aide-mémoire of our history is gone. Do you realize that using the third Monday as Presidents Day means that day can never fall on Washington’s Birthday? Rather sad, isn’t it?
George Washington was a lifelong learner. Like everyone, he made many mistakes but never the same one twice. He was a patriot but only after he learned the true meaning of the term. As a youth in colonial service he believed that what was good for him was good for his country. Later, he learned that what was good for the country would be good for George Washington. He learned, in a time of great orators and writers, that silence and a few words often meant more than long speeches or flowing prose. He learned that men will follow someone who leads by example. He learned that men are not saints but are spurred on by self-interest and it was important to show how the new country and new ideas benefited individuals. Despite an inadequate formal education, he learned by reading and experimenting. He never stopped learning.
In recognition of President’s Day, I asked my elementary-age daughters what they knew and thought about George Washington. They gave me the standard profile: soldier, founder, first president, and slaveholder. For my daughters, the last brought his moral character into question, while his failure to write any great, intellectual explorations of liberty transformed him into a figurehead for more philosophical patriots like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, or Adams. Fortunately, a new generation of scholars have begun to give us a more nuanced and sophisticated appreciation for biographer James Thomas Flexner’s “Indispensable Man.” Now, we have the young adventurer on the make for his adventures in land speculation on the American frontier; the entrepreneur who built one of the most successful businesses in Virginia from a modest stake; the scientist and engineer who experimented with architecture, new crops, plants, and animals; the bibliophile who consumed books for self-education, both in practical and philosophical topics; the patron of the arts, who frequented the theater more than most men; the dedicated church vestryman who saw a public benefit from religion, but declined to take communion and often skipped services to go fox-hunting; the stand-in father, not only for those who were relations by blood or marriage, but also for those who served the cause in the military or government; the political manipulator who preferred working behind the scenes to great soaring speeches or artful pamphleteering; the big man who moved with grace, whether on horseback or the dance floor; the practical political philosopher, who recognized the contradictions of a free country that allowed slavery even as he could not figure out how to address it; and, finally, the elder statesman who had seen and done enough in the world to recognize the dangers to a modern republic and warn his countrymen of the strengths, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities of their new experiment in self-governance and freedom. More than two centuries ago, writers building a new national identity put a fictional and idealized Washington on a pedestal from which subsequent generations were doomed to push him. Today, we’re fortunate to have a more complex understanding of this “Indispensable Man” and the real person who could legitimately claim the title, “Father of his Country.” When they’re older, my daughters will too.
His youthful incompetence ignited a world war. He lost more battles than he won. He had neither a dazzling personality nor a brilliant intellect. Nevertheless, George Washington was a man of genius—a genius that shined brightest in the moments of deepest crisis. From his do-or-die attacks on Trenton and Princeton in the closing days of 1776, to his fateful decision to march south to Yorktown, to his single-handed gelding of the Newburgh Conspiracy, to his decision to surrender his commission at the conclusion of the War for Independence; Washington’s resilient, self-effacing leadership was the vital component to the ultimate success of both the military and political phases of the American Revolution. Had he failed in any one of those moments, and in many others, the United States might very well have perished in its cradle. At the very least, his legacy of surrendering power not once, but twice, has been one of the fundamental bulwarks undergirding a functional constitutional republic embarking upon its 229th year. First in war, first in peace, and, on his 286th birthday, still first in the hearts of his countrymen.
While researching events around Boston during the siege of 1775, I was recently struck by the volume and complexity of information successfully managed by General Washington at his headquarters in Cambridge during that time. From important observations concerning suspicious movements of the British, to oddball accounts of a lone mystery-horse swimming across Boston Harbor, a dizzying array of information crossed his desk. Intelligence reports, correspondence, organizational and administrative details, and the practicalities of procuring food, clothing and gunpowder for the nascent Continental Army were but a few.
The mental calisthenics required to learn and synthesize so much information speaks to a powerfully ordered and disciplined mind. Quite impressive, even to modern-day denizens of an information society.
But perhaps most critical—he never disappointed on the dance floor.
Much can be said about George Washington, most of it good, some of it bad. But this only serves to illustrate that Washington was human, and like all people, he had flaws: an ambition for wealth and fame as a young man, frequent outbursts of temper, and his near paranoid response to the threat to his position as Continental Army commander posed by the alleged “Conway Cabal.” Washington’s greatness lay in his ability to overcome his personal weaknesses when it was necessary for the good of his country and its people, and he thus exemplified the ideal of eighteenth-century republican citizenship. Some of the most notable examples of his political character include the Newburgh Conspiracy of 1783, when he shamed officers planning a coup against the Congress with a theatrical mention of his own wartime sacrifices, his reluctant acceptance of the presidency because he thought it necessary to get the new U.S. government under the Constitution off to an effective start, and his equal reluctance to accept a second term as president when America’s first economic crisis threatened the stability of the fledgling government. In these and other instances, Washington sought first and foremost the public good rather than the pursuit of his personal interests. Washington set an example of duty and service that should serve as an enduring lesson in the qualities necessary to make a leader truly great.
John L. Smith:
Today we celebrate the birthday of George Washington. But to many adults and young people, George is just the old white-haired guy on the dollar bill and on a couple monuments – and that’s all they know. But if only they knew why George Washington was undoubtedly our greatest president, they would also know that his greatest accomplishment wasn’t a week of mattress clearance sales.
Washington is slipping from our national attention of honoring him as a genuine American hero. It was even happening in Abraham Lincoln’s time (the other national hero whose birthday we celebrate in February). In 1838, a mere twelve years after both Jefferson and John Adams had died, Lincoln gave a famous speech in Springfield, Illinois, in which he said “the scenes of the revolution” were quickly fading from public remembrance. But that among the founding “forest of giant oaks [and] the pillars of the temple of liberty … [we would revere] his name to the last … our Washington.”
However, the ambivalence is even greater today, coupled with the singular, one-dimensional outrage that Washington was a slave owner. So how long will we as a country, continue to celebrate George Washington’s birthday? The answer is that hopefully, with the proper communication and modern multimedia tools for new generations—along with a truthful and objective look at Washington—we will continue to have birthday celebrations for a long time to come. Already the folks at Mount Vernon are utilizing new features, interactive displays, and frank discussions on every aspect of George’s life, including slavery. But they are also emphasizing Washington’s admirable (and unknown) traits as models of character in today’s world. Monticello and Montpelier are doing the same for Jefferson and Madison.
Cherry trees aside, that’s how adults and young people will learn facts; for instance, Washington’s feelings about slavery changed over his lifetime. Enough so that when he wrote his final will, he freed his and Martha’s slaves—something none of the other founding fathers did—and it enraged his fellow Virginians. Added to that, he also provided financial support for the young and old slaves, including an opportunity to be taught to read and write. Very few, if any, Americans today know these long-overlooked facts.
Americans may also learn that Washington was also simply the “indispensable man,” the right person at the right time during the birth of our country. His character and virtue led the country during its War of Independence and as its first president. Gordon Wood noted Washington’s greatness came from “the way he conducted himself during times of temptation.” Kids today may know about revolutionary leaders like Mao Zedong or Fidel Castro, but they probably haven’t connected the dots that those two rebels (like Caesar and Cromwell) held onto power once they had won it, betraying their own revolutions. Twice Washington walked away from dictatorial power—as army commander, then as president—and returned to civilian life. It simply had never been done before in history.
People may see Washington as he really was: the glue that held our infant country together during its growing pains. He was modest, didn’t brag, and didn’t abuse his power. Those traits may also be startling and unbelievable to young kids and adults today who are used to modern politicians.
Washington’s Birthday will still have meaning in the twenty-first century when George Washington is seen through new and objective eyes—as a real human being with faults, but with self-made integrity and character that the average person can still strive for today.
Washington has been a favorite target of the debunking craze for some time. That routine really goes back to the Revolution, when Charles Lee famously sneered that the general was “damnably deficient.” Yes, Washington made some costly errors, and from the comfortable distance of two centuries, it’s easy to point them out. But the ultimate result of the Revolutionary War was an orchestrated outcome, not an accident, and confirms the soundness of Washington’s leadership. Arguably the general’s most admirable trait was a fierce doggedness in the face of repeated defeat. There are simply few examples of resolution and tenacity as inspiring as that of George Washington. Every undertaking in this life is met with hardship and reversal, not immediate victory. Success never awaits those who wilt at setbacks, and Washington’s life is an enduring testament to that fact.
OK, I’ll speak the unspeakable: the Father of Our Country loved taxes! Well, not exactly “love”—“No taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant,” Washington admitted in his Farewell Address. But the outgoing president then lectured the nation: “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit … It is essential that you should bear in mind that towards the payment of debts there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes … It is necessary that public opinion should co-operate. [We need] a spirit of acquiescence in the measures for obtaining revenue.” He could scarcely imagine a gigantic tax cut that runs up the national debt during peacetime. Earlier, when Madison proposed to assuage Anti-Federalists by introducing amendments that would become the Bill of Rights, Washington gave his blessing, but with one caveat: “There are scarcely any of the amendments which have been suggested [by the states], to which I have much objection, except that which goes to the prevention of direct taxation.” Federal taxation was Washington’s bottom line. Granting Congress sweeping powers to tax was what prompted the Constitution—yet imagine, today, if Washington ran for president on a pro-tax platform. Good luck with that, I’d caution him.
Is Washington the greatest American of all time? My answer is Yes. Unfortunately, if a vote were taken today, he probably would place only somewhere in the top ten. Why? Well, he never proclaimed an interest in any of the leadership positions, General of the Continental Congress, President of the Constitutional Convention or the Presidency.
I hope that people can remember Washington as a man with powerful emotions. Washington was famously circumspect, but his normally stern visage hid the same emotions that affect all of us. He deeply loved his wife, Martha. He raged with frustration in the midst of battlefield confusion at Kip’s Bay and Monmouth. He was exuberant with success at Princeton and when congratulating the Corps of Light Infantry after Stony Point. He was a proud professional during enemy surrenders at Trenton and Yorktown. Washington was outwardly dignified when he rode into New York City immediately after the British evacuation in the Revolution’s final act. Can we imagine what a range of powerful emotions Washington must have felt entering Manhattan, finally achieving ultimate victory and independence after eight years of war?
To me, George Washington is the finest military leader in the history of the United States. As a young officer, he was anything but stellar and is a prime example of how inexperienced most second lieutenants are. Putting aside that his earliest action all but started the Seven Years War in North America, if you stand on the site of Fort Necessity, you quickly realize that a bunch of nine-year-olds with water balloons would have driven his command out of that position. Yet, there is no doubting his courage and leadership ability when reviewing his performance at Braddock’s defeat. It is these skills that made Washington the renowned commander-in-chief of the Continental Army we know him to be. He was clearly not a great tactician or strategist. He got lucky a few times, but these were offset by blunders and bad decisions. Yet, he somehow held it all together and, thanks to a bit of attrition, the war was won.
As we pause to remember General George Washington on his 286th birthday—a patriot who spent eight years on the battlefield fighting for American independence and another eight years in politics as President of the United States to help insure that we kept that independence, I cannot help but think that events could have turned out very differently.
Selected by Congress to command the newly adopted continental army outside Boston in 1775, General Washington held grave misgivings about his appointment, declaring that he did not feel that he was up to the task before him. Generations of Americans know that Washington was indeed the perfect choice to lead the American army and later, the new American government, but they have the benefit of hindsight to reach such a conclusion. If one puts themselves in Washington’s shoes in the summer of 1775, they might better appreciate the daunting task that befell him.
Chosen by Congress as much for political expediency (to garner greater southern support for the war) as for his military experience and skill, Washington rode north to Massachusetts in late June with a sense of foreboding. His arrival in Cambridge in early July must have been a bit awkward and the resentment of some of the Massachusetts officers palpable. One can just image them thinking, “what right does this Virginian have to command an army of New Englanders”—an army that had humbled the British on their march from Concord and had mauled them at Bunker Hill.
With virtually no one to confide in, for Washington knew no one intimately in camp, his first few weeks in Massachusetts must have been extremely difficult, yet, he not only persevered through the siege of Boston (which lasted eleven months) he prevailed through the eight year war.
There are many reasons to admire General Washington; his success at Trenton and Princeton, his courage at Monmouth, his determination at Valley Forge and Morristown, and his boldness at Yorktown, just to name a few. What he did over the summer and fall of 1775 in Massachusetts also deserves recognition and appreciation. I truly believe only a man of great character could have succeeded under the circumstances of this early war period. Luckily for us, General Washington proved to be that man.