If he had not died on December 14, 1799, he would be celebrating his 184th birthday today. On February 22, 1732, George Washington was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, the second son from the second marriage of a colonial plantation owner. An initially loyal British subject, Washington eventually led the Continental Army in the American Revolution and became known as the father of the United States. George Washington’s legacy has endured a long process of untangling myth from fact. The famous cherry tree incident never occurred, nor did Washington have wooden teeth. Known for being emotionally reserved and aloof, he was concerned with personal conduct, character, and self-discipline but was known to bend the rules if necessary, especially in war. Although Washington was undoubtedly ambitious, he pursued his goals humbly and with quiet confidence in his abilities as a leader.
During this election cycle, Republicans are asking, “Who’s the next Ronald Reagan?” Democrats are asking, “Who’s the next John Kennedy?” A better question might be, “Who’s the next George Washington?” Let’s consider three traits demonstrated by our first president that we sorely need in national leadership today.
- George Washington was an humble man. In his first inaugural address, he said, “I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” He declined “any share in the personal emoluments” or monetary gains for himself. Never intoxicated with power, in his second inaugural address, he subjected himself to “the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.” He could have been a king; he chose to be a president. The Bible says, “Be completely humble and gentle” (Ephesians 4:2). Humility was perhaps the most significant character trait of our first president.
- George Washington was a man of self-discipline. In her book, Meet George Washington, Joan Heilbroner describes a man of incredible self-discipline. She quotes him as regularly challenging himself, “Undertake not what you cannot perform.” He said, “It’s better to offer no excuse than a bad one.” No one farmed harder or fought harder than George Washington. He outworked his staff and outlived his contemporaries. Every day was filled with purpose. George Washington was the embodiment of self-discipline. Paul said, “God gave us a spirit of self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7), a spirit demonstrated daily by President Washington.
- George Washington was a man of high character. In 1788 he wrote to his trusted confidant Alexander Hamilton, “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain the character of an honest man.” In leading the War for Independence, he extolled his soldiers to “display the character appropriate to Christian soldiers.” Though gifted as a leader, statesman, and military genius, what mattered most to George Washington was not to win the battles of war, but the battles of the heart. Paul told young Timothy to “pursue righteousness” (1 Timothy 6:11). That was a pursuit that filled George Washington’s life.
President’s Day was created to honor the first president of the United States. Was he our greatest president? The answer seems obvious; without him there would have been no others. So as we celebrate the man who would be 184 years old today, let’s do so, not with another statue or monument, but by committing to being the kind of people worthy of the sacrifice of the man who gave all he had to create a better country than the world had ever known.