Monday, June 23, 2008

The Surprising George Washington

This article is an interesting and revealing look at George Washington. You can go read it yourself, but what I wanted to bring to your attention is what this author found to be Washington’s greatest achievement:

I am often asked to describe Washington's greatest achievement, which I find relatively simple, unlike the man himself. To me it is not winning the Revolution, remarkable as that was, nor even establishing the American presidency, during a period in which he almost never set a foot wrong. George Washington deserves to be remembered for both, to be sure But we can admire such accomplishments without being emotionally moved by them.

No: the ultimate significance of George Washington's life lies in the fact that he singlehandedly redefined our traditional idea of greatness. Before he lived, to be great was to be triumphant: to conquer an enemy's territory, to kill his soldiers, and subdue his populace. In an age when divine right held sway over most of the planet, greatness was measured by the authority vested in one man, and the lengths to which he would go to keep that authority.

To his everlasting credit, George Washington was ambiguous about power. The man who could have been king insisted that ultimate sovereignty lay with the people, however imperfect their judgment. At the end of the war, and again at the end of his presidency, he calmly walked away from power. This genius for renunciation prompted the dying Napoleon in his windswept exile to remark, "They wanted me to be another Washington."

But of course that was impossible. Two hundred years later, our first President remains that rarest of historical figures, of whom it can be said that in conceding his humanity, we only confirm his greatness.

I thought this was a great statement of why Washington matters so much to us today.

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