He is the most easily recognized member of America’s founding generation. His involvement in founding events was so pervasive that one of his biographers described him as the “central feature in every major event of the revolutionary era.” He was celebrated as a legend, even in his own time.
Yet few really knew him, despite his fame. He was a very private man when it came to personal matters. And his reputation sometimes seems to be built as much on myth as reality. As a result, America’s first president, George Washington, is not only one of our nation’s most famous leaders, but also one of its most misunderstood.
Today, his birthday, is a good time for a more thoughtful assessment of his record.
One early Washington biographer, Parson Weems, is especially notorious for the stories that he conjured about Washington. Weems most famously told the well-known (but almost certainly false) story about Washington cutting down a cherry tree. “I can’t tell a lie, Pa; you know I can’t tell a lie,” Washington allegedly told his father when asked about the tree’s demise. Other stories feature Washington throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac and spontaneously adding the words “so help me, God” to the presidential oath of office. (The latter story is plausible, but not verifiable, as there is no contemporaneous evidence of it.)
Such stories, while inaccurate, tend to be harmless. More damaging are the misperceptions of Washington’s record and his intellect. Both during his life and after, Washington was often underestimated due to his lack of formal schooling. John Adams once asserted: “That Washington was not a scholar is certain. That he was too illiterate, unlearned, unread for his station is equally past dispute.” Thomas Jefferson echoed this opinion when he pronounced that Washington possessed “neither copiousness of ideas, nor fluency of words. In public, when called on for a sudden opinion, he was unready, short and embarrassed.”
In the same vein, others have noted that Washington did not speak often in legislative debate. He barely spoke during the Constitutional Convention, for instance. But Washington was the Convention’s president, and he generally deemed it inappropriate for the Convention’s president to express himself—especially when everyone in the room, Washington included, knew that he was destined to become the first president of the United States, should a Constitution be ratified. The fact that Washington did rise to voice his opinion once, at the end of the Convention, suggests that he was mentally engaged in the debate the whole time, even if he generally refrained from commentary. Washington broke his silence to speak in support of an amendment proposed by Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts. The amendment affected the number of representatives in Congress, a topic fiercely debated during the Convention. Washington’s last-minute speech in favor of the amendment helped to ensure its passage.
The historical record refutes the common perception that Washington was the muscle behind the American Revolution—the “doer”—while Jefferson, Adams, James Madison and others were the “thinkers.”
Admittedly, Washington’s formal education was not all that it should have been. But much of what he lacked in schooling, he made up for by reading. His library was unusually large for a man of his time—1,000 books at the time of his death. He regularly read newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets. He was a man of such historical moment that he knew others were looking to his thoughts for guidance, and he was conscientious about fully exploring all sides to an argument before making a thoughtful decision, particularly after he was inaugurated president.
“As the first of everything, in our situation will serve to establish a Precedent,” Washington wrote Madison, “it is devoutly wished on my part, that these precedents may be fixed on true principles.” As a result, Washington was careful in his deliberations, whether the issues were small (can he change the meeting place for Congress in an emergency?) or large (does a new Bank of the United States lie within the scope of federal power under the Constitution?). Washington knew that his actions would guide future interpretations of constitutional principles, and he was careful to act deliberately.
Perhaps one of Washington’s most thoughtful observations was one he penned to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. In this letter, Washington proclaimed:
All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by 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, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Many historians have been inexplicably reluctant to credit Washington for the content of this letter, wondering whether he was really the author. They instead speculate that Tobias Lear (Washington’s personal secretary), Col. David Humphreys, or even Jefferson should be recognized as the intellect behind the words.
Washington’s busy schedule doubtless caused him to rely upon several aides for help when drafting his public correspondence. But it is equally certain that Washington personally “dominated his correspondence,” as described by John C. Fitzpatrick, editor of the George Washington Bicentennial Commission collection of Washington’s writings. Washington gave great thought to the issues of his time, and it is impossible to imagine him endorsing any statement that did not truly and accurately express his own views.
Washington was thus more than the “doer” that history sometimes makes him out to be. He was also a “thinker” who spent a great deal of time considering the issues of his day and carefully setting precedents. Indeed, as even Adams and Jefferson ultimately acknowledged, Washington’s Farewell Address was one of the “best guides” for understanding the “distinctive principles of the government of our State, and of that of the United States.”
Washington’s birthday is a good time to recall that his wisdom and his example deserve more attention.
Tara Ross & Joseph C. Smith Jr. are the authors of Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State.