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  • Ken Ilgunas

George Washington

I wanted this book to go on and on. I’m a nut for presidential biographies, and this is one of the best…

Washington was a flawed man in many ways:

  • In his early years, he was unbecomingly ambitious. He obsessed over his dress, and he would not-so-subtly elbow his way into the lives of the rich and powerful with the hope of elevating his station.

  • His ascent into greatness had as much to do with his qualities as a person as the fortuitous deaths of his relatives, who passed onto him their lands, fortunes, and slaves at critical times in his early career.

  • He loved his plantation and had a passion for agricultural innovation, but he was far from a good farmer, and Mount Vernon was a constant source of debt and disappointment.

  • At best, he had an average military mind. Although he may have been the only person capable of keeping the ragged and starving Continental Army together, his military victories were few, and he was often outdone on the battlefield by his lesser generals.

  • He never sufficiently spoke out against slavery (in fact, he was often quite cruel to his slaves). Given that he was surrounded by progressive thinkers and exposed to abolitionist thought, this is especially unforgivable.

But we can say this about Washington. He recognized that the country needed a leader — if just the symbol of a leader — and he was willing to play the part. He had stature, presence, discipline. He had the right posture, the right disposition, the right look. American citizens needed a symbol of stability. Bickering politicians needed a leader who stood above the partisan fray. Squabbling colonies, that were being asked to dissolve their boundaries, needed a leader in whom they could place their trust. Washington was, as Adams put it, a “center of union” and the “central stone in the geometrical arch.” Washington’s defeats and retreats on the battlefield were played down or ignored because the country needed a steady leader — a symbolic figurehead — more than military victories.

He wasn’t all warm eyes and a steely jaw, though. He knew how to play the political game better than anyone. He was a good judge of character. He recognized genius, and surrounded himself throughout his career with bright minds. He picked a good wife, who gave him a life of warmth and emotional support. His emotional IQ was off the charts, and he knew how to win people’s loyalty and scold with grace. Although he began his career seeking fame and fortune, he’d eventually, as Chernow writes, “subordinate his personal dreams and aspirations to the service of a larger cause.”

Adams said, if Washington “was not the greatest president, he was the best actor of the presidency we have ever had.” This wasn’t an insult, I don’t think, because sometimes that’s in large part what a leader needs to be—an actor. Washington was in fact partisan, fiery, hot-tempered—this we see after his presidency, when he abandons the facade of the cool and nonpartisan leader and begins to actively conspire against the Jefferson- and Madison-led Democratic-Republicans. But for the the length of the Revolutionary War and his presidency, he mustered all the self-discipline he had, swallowed his tongue, and gave the disparate and loosely bound band of colonies — shaken by war, revolution, and tumult — what it most needed: a symbol of stability and republican virtue (except for the whole slavery thing). I think it’s fair to wonder whether the U.S. would have formed without Washington. The war may not have been won. The colonies may never have come together. The fledgling nation may never have taken flight with a lesser first president. He may be one of those few figures whose existence has dramatically altered the course of history.


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