The Virginia gentry of his time included profound authors and spectacular orators, yet Washington was neither. His famous “Farewell Address” was never delivered as a speech and was written with much help from Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay (hence the Address’s many echoes of The Federalist). While Washington regretted his lack of formal education, he and the nation were better for the fact that the “Father of our Country” was not a mere man of words, but a man of action.
Washington’s life was marked by acts of heroic daring and heroic restraint. It was by these acts that Washington gained fame and allegiance in his day. He emerged on the world stage during the French and Indian War, distinguishing himself at the Battle of Monongahela—an ambush that would have been a rout if not for Washington. His “victory or death” tenacity through the years of the War for Independence, coupled with his humility at the War’s end, upheld a standard of leadership not seen since Republican Rome. His surrender of the presidency after two terms established a precedent that survived until the rise of the American Progressives (who also redirected America away from celebrating the humble statesman Washington in favor of celebrating political power itself on “Presidents Day”).
You are what you do much more than what you say. A person may speak of great ideas, or even true ideas, without being great or true. It is all too easy to judge others and ourselves based on stated intentions rather than actions and consequences. The drift of our culture in this direction is evident in a politics that looks to words more than ideas and ideas more than results.
George Washington did write down, for others and for himself, thoughts about how to live in a free society. Here are three of Washington's own reflections, including from his earliest and his final days..
From his copying of the Rules of Civility:
Labor to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience.
The opening of a letter to the Marquis de LaFayette:
I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig-tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments, of which the Soldier who is ever in pursuit of fame, the Statesman whose watchful days and sleepless nights are spent in devising schemes to promote the welfare of his own, perhaps the ruin of other countries, as if this globe was insufficient for us all, and the Courtier who is always watching the countenance of his Prince, in hopes of catching a gracious smile, can have very little conception. I am not only retired from all public employments, but I am retiring within myself; and shall be able to view the solitary walk, and tread the paths of private life with heartfelt satisfaction. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all; and this my dear friend, being the order for my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.
Washington's Last Will & Testament:
To each of my Nephews, William Augustine Washington, George Lewis, George Steptoe Washington, Bushrod Washington, & Samuel Washington, I give one of the Swords or Cutteaux of which I may die possessed; and they are to choose in the order they are named. These swords are accompanied with an injunction not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defense, or in defense of their Country & its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof.