"The greatest man in the world"
February 22nd marks the anniversary of George Washington's birth. There's much about Washington we think we know -- later biographers invented several myths to elevate the first president from the level of man to secular saint. But in his way, Washington was truly unique in American political life, and that is what helped make him one of the few, genuinely, indespensible men in our history. As Cato's David Boaz writes:
What values did Washington’s character express? He was a farmer, a businessman, an enthusiast for commerce. As a man of the Enlightenment, he was deeply interested in scientific farming. His letters on running Mount Vernon are longer than letters on running the government. (Of course, in 1795 more people worked at Mount Vernon than in the entire executive branch of the federal government.)
He was also a liberal and tolerant man. In a famous letter to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, he hailed the “liberal policy” of the United States on religious freedom as worthy of emulation by other countries. He explained, “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”
And most notably, he held “republican” values – that is, he believed in a republic of free citizens, with a government based on consent and established to protect the rights of life, liberty, and property.
From his republican values Washington derived his abhorrence of kingship, even for himself. The writer Garry Wills called him “a virtuoso of resignations.” He gave up power not once but twice – at the end of the revolutionary war, when he resigned his military commission and returned to Mount Vernon, and again at the end of his second term as president, when he refused entreaties to seek a third term. In doing so, he set a standard for American presidents that lasted until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose taste for power was stronger than the 150 years of precedent set by Washington.
Give the last word to Washington’s great adversary, King George III. The king asked his American painter, Benjamin West, what Washington would do after winning independence. West replied, “They say he will return to his farm.”
“If he does that,” the incredulous monarch said, “he will be the greatest man in the world.”
Washington, like all men, had his failings. But he labored his entire life to keep them in check. And even during his time, as partisan feelings began to take root in American soil, Washington took his share of barbs for how he ran the government. But even his most ardent foes (they did exist, and even included his one-time admirer, Thomas Paine) were unable to diminish his achievements -- leading a new nation to victory against a global super power, and eventually guiding that nation through its frist, tentative steps toward a fully functioning federal republic.
Was Washington the greatest man in the world? That's open to debate. But we can safely say our debt to him in far greater than we can ever repay.