In the previous two columns, I highlighted the first seven of the top 10 reasons I wish George Washington were still alive:
10) Washington was a role model for many, even as a youth.
9) Washington epitomized courage.
8) Washington wasn’t afraid of public opinion or challenging the status quo.
7) Washington was a man of integrity and character yet just as human as the rest of us.
6) Washington was a first-class servant leader who walked what he talked.
5) Washington didn’t allow personal obstacles to stop his service to God, his family and his country.
4) Washington was a devoted family man.
Here are the remaining three reasons I wish he were still alive and why I believe the model of his life is still worthy to shadow today. (These are also the reasons I cited in my New York Times best-seller “Black Belt Patriotism,” which has an expanded paperback edition.)
3) Washington revered God and religion, often elevating their irreplaceable and invaluable roles in our republic. For example, in 1789, during the same time when the First Amendment was written, then-President Washington signed into law the Northwest Ordinance, which states, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.”
On Oct. 3, 1789, Washington issued the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation to God: “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
A must-see at Washington’s estate at Mount Vernon is his museum’s exhibition display and video (set up within a mini chapel setting) of how the general of the Revolutionary War and the first president of our nation esteemed God and religion — not exactly what you might read in textbooks or hear in classrooms today about Washington.
2) Washington led our nation with frugality and self-sacrifice. Throughout the Revolutionary War as commander in chief of the Continental Army, Washington refused to accept any pay, though he was reimbursed by Congress for expenses accrued during the war. He was reluctant even to be paid as president but was convinced by others that it would not be a good precedent for future presidents. So Congress gave Washington $25,000 a year, the largest salary in the U.S. for personal service at the time (2 percent of the national budget).
It should be noted, however, that being president then didn’t have the thousands of perks that come with the position today, including a free mansion in which to live. For example, after staying for 16 months in New York, Washington and his wife, Martha, rented a mansion in Philadelphia (the nation’s capital before D.C.), where they lived from 1790-97. Washington had to use his salary both for official duties and to maintain his personal affairs. It was an amount that even he complained was scarcely enough.
Because Washington conducted presidential business from that residence, as well, he supported a robust staff, in addition to his family. Ushistory.org notes, “In November (1790), when the presidential household moved in, there were up to thirty people living on the premises: Washington, his wife, Martha, and her grandchildren, Nelly and G.W. Parke Custis; Chief Secretary Tobias Lear, his wife, and the three male secretaries; eight enslaved Africans from Mount Vernon; and about fifteen white servants.”
Much is made today of Washington’s financial fortune (USA Today labeled him “the big daddy of presidential wealth”), but most overlook that his wealth was largely amassed in the Mount Vernon estate, which he inherited from his elder half brother in 1761, and in Martha’s land and slaves, inherited from her former husband.
Sure, he had lots of assets, but his liquidity didn’t flow like wealthy people’s money today. Remember that back then, there was no established national banking system. Bartering and oscillating state currencies and commodities were the names of the game (until the 1792 Coinage Act), with the value of land fluctuating sharply based upon weather and crop production. As The Atlantic put it, “because there was no central banking system and no regulatory framework for commodities, markets were subject to panics in ways unknown today.” Consider that at 57 years old, Washington even had to borrow money to pay off debts and to travel to his own inauguration.
1) The No. 1 reason I wish George Washington were still alive is that his character and leadership are so rare and desperately needed in our nation’s capital today, as much as, if not even more so than, it was in our republic’s formation.
In 1797, after winning the Revolutionary War and serving two presidential terms in office, Washington finally retired to Mount Vernon at 65 years of age, but he would enjoy his rest for only two years.
On Dec. 14, 1799, Washington died of a severe respiratory sickness. His beloved Martha died only three years later.
In his will, he humbly and simply referred to himself as “George Washington of Mount Vernon, a citizen of the United States, and lately President of the same.”
At first, the Washingtons were laid to rest in an unmarked brick tomb at Mount Vernon. But their final resting place is in a crypt there that bears the title of him who refused to be king. The engraved words over the tomb make known the title by which people knew Washington best back then — not as president but as general.
The inscription reads, “Within this Enclosure Rest the remains of Gen.l George Washington.” And over the door of the inner tomb are inscribed these words from Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Washington’s good friend Henry Lee probably summarized his life, leadership and legacy best in the eulogy for the father of the United States: “First in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
And so he remains — or should remain — always.
God, please give the U.S. more men and women like George and Martha Washington.
For more on the monumental figure, I recommend the amazing book “George Washington’s Sacred Fire,” by Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe.
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