Today marks the father of our nation’s birthday. George Washington has become synonymous with America; people know his name and are familiar with some of his accomplishments. What is often not understood is just how important Washington was to founding and survival of the new American republic. Considering that Washington saved the fledgling nation on five distinct occasions, it is safe to say that he is American history’s most indispensable man, without whom we would likely not be a country today.
Washington’s first indispensably valuable task was his leading of the continental army. The army was formed by a leery continental congress after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord. Many in the body felt that raising an army was tantamount to declaring war and thus resisted this action. It was only because a man of esteemed reputation and known character stepped up to lead the army that the critics were abated. Without this step, declaring independence would have been impossible. Washington’s willingness to lead helped to catalyze the coming revolution and gave the soon to be born nation a fighting chance.
But the real challenge was in how Washington would manage to fight a war against the largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. What was at first a survival tactic would evolve to a strategy of attrition. Washington refused to hold proper battles with the British, where traditionally two sides would line up opposing each other and trade volleys while advancing on each other. Instead, knowing they were outnumbered and out supplied, Washington would engage the Brits in limited skirmishing before retreating, sometimes sneaking away with his men into the night while the British were camping. Washington realized that it was timely and costly for the British to ship men and supplies from Europe. He began to realize his best chance at defeating was to continue to lead them all over a countryside they were wholly unfamiliar with, engaging them only when the circumstances were right. For the better part of the first year of the war, Washington’s chances looked bleak. But on Christmas of that year, a sneak attack on the town of Trenton, New Jersey, began the slow shift of momentum to the Americans’ side.
The war would drag on for seven years—seven years of pain and agony for an under-supplied and under-manned army. But in the end the ragtag army was victorious. The victory would have not been possible without the aid of the French, but the French never would have joined the struggle had Washington not proven that America could win. Lesser men would have given up, crumbled under the pressure, or even surrendered. Washington led through hell-like conditions and always kept his composure.
The war was fought on the principle of self-governance; meaning civilian government. Such a notion was radically revolutionary. So much so, that upon accepting the British surrender, American soldiers actually plotted to overthrow Congress and install Washington as a king. This may sound unbelievable, but at the time armies were loyal to their commanders more so than any nation. It was also common at the time for leaders of victorious armies to take power. For soldiers who has spent years fighting in hellish conditions, the idea of going back to civilian life without any real perks didn’t sit well. They had won the war, after all, and they should be the leaders of the new nation.
In the first hours of the American victory a plot to undermine everything the war had been fought for began gaining popular support among enlisted men. They would go to Philadelphia and install Washington as king, effectively killing the principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence. But Washington caught word of this treachery and pleaded with his men, tears in eyes, to not forsake everything that had fought so hard for. It was his impassioned words that killed the plot and soon after Washington marched into Congress and surrendered command of his army to the leaders of the new nation. A tendency towards government of might nearly killed the new American republic in its infancy. Washington dissuaded the plotters and saved the country for a third time.
More importantly, Washington rejected untold power, declining a throne to honor his principles. It is said that when King George III heard of this, he mused that Washington must either be the greatest man in the world or the stupidest. Turning down such power was unheard of. Washington resisted the power and our republic was born.
Once the war was won, however, the fate of the new nation was still very much in doubt. Could they build an efficient and effective government? Could they maintain national defense? British forces still loomed in Canada and other imperial powers were eyeing the American continent. There was fear that a new federal government might be too weak and ineffective, and there was also fear the new government would be too powerful and crush to sovereignty of the states. The latter led people and states to distrust the federal government, which prolonged the structure of government as was conceived in the Articles of Confederation—a structure lacking necessary federal power.
The compromise we would eventually end up with would give us a government powerful enough to function but chained down by the restraints of the US Constitution. But this new constitution was only born for one reason: George Washington had agreed to sit as president to the constitutional convention. He was probably the only man who had the respect and trust of the people necessary for them to put their concerns aside and participate in the drafting of the Constitution. The new documented would cement many of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and carefully layout restraints on the new federal entity. More importantly, it allowed for a better national defense and would lead way to the adoption of our Bill of Rights just two years later.
Without Washington we would not have a Constitution or a Bill of Rights and without that federal structure we would have been less able to meet the defense needs and provide stable ground for the new Republic to flourish.
But of course, many were still skeptical of the new federal entity and its powers. There was quite literally only one man who people trusted enough to serve in the role of president of the United States of America: George Washington. By serving as the nation’s first president, Washington gave legitimacy and respect to the newly created federal government. Then after two terms, Washington proved his fidelity to his principles once more, by stepping down and establishing the precedent of presidents limiting themselves to two terms.
Time and time again, in our most crucial hours, George Washington proved to be our most indispensable man. He was often seen riding into the heat of battle and was always the last to retreat—always doing his best to make sure his men were safe. His leadership inspired patriotism for a nation that was still being forged. While history shades our memories with present attitudes on morality, we often forget the context in which our historical heroes earned their roles in history. Was Washington a perfect person? No, but he was the man this country and the world needed when they needed it. Today we celebrate Washington and rightly so. But he wasn’t just our first president, he was the man without whom we likely wouldn’t have a country.