What would George Washington think of our country and political discourse today? He’d probably be pleasantly surprised in some areas and disappointed in others.

Feb. 22 is George Washington’s birthday. Sadly, the specific has morphed into the general to have a 3-day weekend and now we celebrate Presidents Day, even though some of our Presidents were mediocre or corrupt.

Valley Forge Painting

Like many of the founders, Washington was from Virginia, where the established church was Anglican until 1786. The famous painting of him kneeling in earnest prayer at Valley Forge may be legend. He was reportedly observed by Isaac Potts, a Quaker, who told his wife what he had seen. “He was at Prayer to the God of the Armies, beseeching to interpose with his Divine aid, as it was ye Crisis, & the cause of the country, of humanity & of the world. We never thought a man could be a soldier and a Christian, but if there is one in the world, it is Washington.”

This story has been widely disputed. For more on the controversy and some letters from Washington written at Valley Forge, follow the link above. George Washington certainly acknowledged America’s dependence on God to prevail in its struggle for liberty.

Prayer at Valley Forge

Pension Revolt Defused

In 1783, after Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown, Congress was slow to provide pensions for the officers who served with Washington. Many were threatening a coup to force Congress to act; Washington opposed this firmly with orders and a speech. He realized this hadn’t convinced them, so he read them a letter from a member of Congress explaining the difficulties the new government faced. He stumbled over some of the words, then stopped, seeming lost & confused. Finally he reached into his pocket for a pair of glasses and said quietly, “Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” None had ever seen him wear glasses; all thoughts of rebellion evaporated as they understood their shared sacrifice.

Washington’s Reputation

First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, Washington was the only president to be elected unanimously and could have remained as long as he wanted. He recognized that America didn’t need another king so he set the example for presidents who would follow with two terms. He was respected by friend and foe alike. In 1814 as the British burned the capitol an American angrily remarked, “You’d never do this if General Washington was here.” The reply was, “You’re right; if he was still alive we wouldn’t dream of it.”

Our founders couldn’t imagine anyone other than a virtuous man wanting to lead our country, yet they planned for it in our Constitution, the world’s oldest and best. They knew human nature and the necessity of separating powers. It had three branches of government with strictly defined powers, a federation of states, with large states represented by population in one house and small states represented equally in the other house. The Electoral College was deliberately set up to guarantee the survival of our republic; they had seen too many democracies degenerate and become replaced with kings when the majority can too easily stomp on the rights of a minority.

According to David Barton, Washington’s reputation was untarnished until the 1920s when a revisionist historian wrote an undocumented book accusing him of infidelity. Later history books referred to this book instead of going back to original sources.

Changes since Washington’s Era

Washington would likely be surprised by today’s speed of communication and the shallowness of thought. Most people then knew the Bible and Shakespeare; nowadays many own a Bible but few read it and fewer know how to properly interpret it. He’d probably be impressed by some of our technology and our longer lifespans, but disappointed in the loss of civility. No doubt he’d be pleased that the Boy Scouts held a jamboree at Mount Vernon in 1999 to salute him on the 200th anniversary of his death, but disappointed that the reprinting of his Rules of Civility with updates for the 21st Century from Cub and Boy Scouts Across America is only available in the gift shop and not in libraries across America.

Mt. Vernon 1

I think he’d be pleased that good people seek public office, but disappointed that their views are deliberately misrepresented by political opponents. He wouldn’t be surprised at sharp differences of opinion which were common then, but he might be surprised that a vocal minority can bully the majority into silence or compliance. Today the constitutional rights of the majority are being trampled by the loudest voices, and people are willing to trade their liberty for security.

We face a lot of challenges as a country and have radically different ideas about how to solve them. But thanks to the example Washington set, the Constitution our founders put in place, and the inherent decency of her people, America’s best days lie ahead, not behind. Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1831 and authored Democracy in America, was right, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”

Further Reading

For those who are interested in a brief biography of him I recommend the chapter in Eric Metaxas’ book 7 Men, and the Secret of their Greatness. It details some of his youthful errors and the secret of his greatness – retiring after two terms and setting a good example for the presidents who would follow. If you buy it from Amazon through the link on our website, the USA Melting Pot club will get a portion of the proceeds. Thanks for your support!