On a visit to Mount Vernon in 1927, Paramhansa Yogananda said of George Washington: “Most great men live hundreds of years before their time. Washington was a man of wide vision, who lived for the ideal of freedom and independence. He mastered himself and the situations in which he was placed and then withdrew into a life of seclusion. He performed his duties, but never forgot the Giver of all gifts.”
A man of tremendous will power and energy, Washington placed duty, honor, and the ideal of selfless service first and foremost in his life. Underlying his idealism was the conviction that nothing truly worthwhile could be achieved without self-mastery. As the commander of the Continental Army, it was Washington’s legendary self-discipline coupled with his deep conviction of the rightness of his cause that enabled the colonists to prevail in the face of overwhelming odds.
George Washington was born Feb. 22, 1732 in what was then the British Commonwealth of Virginia. His early life presaged little of his future greatness as a military hero, international statesman, and first president of the United States. One of ten children, he was the eldest son of a second marriage and was raised in the tradition of a Virginia planter. His father’s sudden death in 1743 ruled out the possibility of an English education, which was proper for a young man of his social class.
At age 16 Washington decided on a career as a surveyor and later led many expeditions into the frontier wilderness, where he developed a lifelong interest in westward expansion. Upon the untimely death of his older half-brother, Lawrence, in 1752, Washington inherited the family’s Mount Vernon estate, as well as his brother’s British military office.
In spite of his youth and inexperience, Washington made a name for himself during the French and Indian War and became widely known for his military judgment. Most important, he gained valuable military experience that would later serve him well as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army.
After marrying in 1759, Washington settled into the life of an eighteenth century gentleman farmer, amassed a fortune as a planter and businessman, and for sixteen years occupied a seat in the Virginia State legislature. By 1774 he had become an influential member of the First Continental Congress.
“A sad choice”
Everything changed radically for Washington after the April 19, 1775 Battle of Lexington, the first major engagement of the American Revolution. Washington wrote to a friend in England saying, “The brother’s sword has been sheathed in the brother’s breast. We now have a sad choice. Either we are to live as slaves or the once happy plains of America are to be drenched in blood.”
In the summer of 1775, Washington was named Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, position he did not seek. John Adams, who lobbied for Washington’s appointment, later wrote in his diary: “I had but one gentleman in mind, someone whose skill and experience, whose independent fortune, great talents and excellent character would win the approval of all America and unite the colonies better than any other person in the union.”
The first eighteen months of Washington’s command went badly; he lost battle after battle. By the winter of 1776, the crisis had come to a head and Washington wrote to his stepson saying, “If I were to put a curse on my worst enemy, it would be to wish him in my position now. I just do not know what to do. It seems impossible to continue my command in this situation, but if I withdraw all is lost.”
“Victory or death”
Many Americans thought it was time to give up. Washington’s troops were underfed, poorly armed, and suffering from typhus and dysentery. Unfairly, Washington was blamed for the ineptitude of the Continental Congress, and there was open talk of replacing him. Yet, despite the military losses and public criticism, it was a measure of Washington’s character, idealism, and political judgment and that he never lost sight of the larger objective. His rallying cry became “victory or death.”
In one last desperate attempt to salvage the war, on Christmas night 1776, Washington crossed the Delaware River and launched an attack on the British in Trenton, New Jersey. Catching them by surprise, the Continental Army captured over 900 prisoners and lost only four men. Washington followed up immediately with another victory at Princeton, New Jersey.
Militarily these were not important victories, but they breathed new life into the revolution. Enlistments poured in from all over the colonies, and people everywhere began to feel that it was possible to reverse the course of the war. Washington, whose very command had been in doubt, now became a national hero. With the aid of France, he achieved final victory in 1783.
“I return my commission”
Once the peace was secured, Washington retired from public life. In a brief statement to Congress he said, “Many years ago when I accepted your commission, I never thought I had the abilities to accomplish so difficult a task. But these doubts were always overcome by a belief in the justice of our cause. I have acted under orders from this august body and now I bid an affectionate farewell to congress. I return my commission and take leave of public life.”
Washington’s actions, which were without precedent, electrified the world. Traditionally, victorious generals expected political rewards commiserate with their military achievements. By renouncing power and fame, Washington gave a new definition to the meaning of greatness. It is no accident that on his deathbed Napoleon said, “They wanted me to be another Washington.”
In 1789 Washington was once again pressed into public service when he was unanimously elected first president of the United States. Washington was acutely aware that his character and actions would define the very nature of the presidency. Speaking of the challenges he faced, he said, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn in precedent.” After two terms, he deliberately stepped down as president, dispelling the notion of a presidency for life.
Although always reluctant to discuss his spiritual life, in his Farewell Address Washington underscored the importance of God in his life, saying “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would a man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and cherish them.”
Washington died December 14, 1799. Henry Lee, a friend and fellow compatriot, eulogized him with the words, “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”