By Peter A. Lillback*
February 2008 – In these politically correct times, George Washington isn’t the hero he once was.
Children don’t read about him in school as much as their parents did. They’re much more likely to learn about African-American, Native American or female heroes.
New Jersey, in fact, issued new history standards a few years ago that omitted any mention of Washington.
Even when children do learn about him, it’s in an article in a boring textbook or a static image in a painting. There are no radio, TV or video clips that would make him come alive.
Washington’s stature has diminished so much that a recent Washington College Poll found that Americans had a higher respect for Bill Clinton’s job performance as president than they did for George Washington’s.
As we once again approach his birthday, it’s time to rediscover Washington, the role model.
From his earliest childhood, through his youth, military career, political career and retirement, Washington was a model of Christian virtues – strength and humility, servanthood and leadership, principles and forgiveness.
A man of character
“First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life,” Maj. Gen. Henry Lee said at Washington’s funeral. “Pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.”
How many recent statesmen have been widely described with these or similar words?
The geniuses of the age, people like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, looked to Washington for leadership. Jefferson said that Washington’s mind wasn’t of the very first order, but “his integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known. … He was a good, and a great, man.”
As Washington’s army suffered defeat after humiliating defeat on the road to Yorktown, he refused to give up and inspired others to do the same. When all seemed lost in the cold and deprivation of Valley Forge, his example galvanized his beleaguered army.
When the war was over, Washington merely desired to be left alone on his Virginia farm. But a group of officers, disenchanted with Congress for its failure to pay the Army, wanted him to become king. He refused.
Washington said he had “no lust” for power. After serving one term as president, he reluctantly agreed to serve a second. And he declined to serve a third, establishing a precedent that – with the exception of Franklin Roosevelt – has survived until this day.
But when his country needed him, Washington was ready to serve. The year before he died – in 1799 at the age of 67 – war with France appeared likely, and Washington agreed to return to public life, in command of the army, if needed.
When King George III of England heard that Washington had willingly relinquished power after the war, he said, “If true, then he is the greatest man in the world.”
One of Washington’s criticisms of King George was that he could neither forget nor forgive; Washington forgave people who hurt him during the war. The list includes childhood friend Bryan Fairfax and the Rev. Jacob Duché, who both rejected the Patriot cause, and the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, who attacked his character.
Washington was not a saint; he owned slaves, for example. And he had to learn to keep deep passions under control and master a quick temper.
But by and large, he was a man who said what he did and did what he said, and he was justifiably beloved for it.
After Washington died, the Duke of Wellington, an enemy, said Washington had “the purest and noblest character of modern time – possibly of all time.”
Washington’s selfless virtues do not play well in our look-at-me age. The heroes of the American Revolution are being relegated to the margins of high school history courses, and we must make sure that Washington is not the next to hit history’s trash bin.
His virtues are greatly needed today, as well as tomorrow, for they never go out of style.
*Historian Peter A. Lillback, Ph.D., is president of The Providence Forum, senior pastor at Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and president of Westminster Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestselling George Washington’s Sacred Fire (Providence Forum Press, 2006), as well as the newly released Wall of Misconception: Does The Separation of Church and State Mean the Separation of God and Government? (Providence Forum Press, 2008) www.providenceforum.org.