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This Day in History: George Washington Was Born

Who Was George Washington?

Mark McNeilly is the author of George Washington and the Art of Business: Leadership Principles of America’s First Commander-in-Chief as well as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers. On Monday he helped us celebrate President’s Day. Today he takes a closer look at George Washington on the anniversary of his birth. The views he expresses are his alone and are not meant to represent those of any company or institution with which he is affiliated.

We celebrated President’s Day on Monday but George Washington’s actual birthday is today, February 22nd. While many of us enjoyed the slew of Presidents’ Day Sales, what we may have lost is reflection on who this great man was and the impact he has had on our country. And for many who do think of him, he is not a man of history but a man of myth. For example, when talking with a friend of mine about Washington she said, “He’s sort of a fable, kind of like Paul Bunyan.” For some he is not even that. In one recent study of college students’ knowledge of American civics only 68% of freshman knew Washington’s proper role as general and statesman in the founding of our country. The rest (roughly one third of the students) thought he was a constitutional writer, a social compact theorist, advocate for states rights or the leader of the Massachusetts’ delegation to the Constitutional Convention.

Those who know history well understand that Washington’s accomplishments are in a class of their own. His journey began at a young age, when he started by building his character. At age 16 Washington sat down to copy advice from the “Rules for Behavior in Company and Conversation”. It was a list of one hundred ten rules, many of which might seem quaint today, such as “Be no Flatterer”. Yet this type of moral education helped instill in Washington a sense of propriety and integrity which would form his character.

9780195189780.jpgIn addition to being a gentleman Washington was of great stature; he stood roughly six feet two inches tall, had broad shoulders with a narrow waist, and weighed about 200 pounds. He was very strong and was thought by many was as one of the greatest horsemen of his time. Later in life Washington would build on these traits by wearing well-tailored military uniforms to enhance his image as a great leader.

As a teen Washington started out as a surveyor in the Virginia wilderness. He soon learned both the rigors and promise of the new country. His knowledge led to him being selected by Virginia’s lieutenant governor to send a message to the French telling them to retreat from British territory. Braving the winter snows, icy rivers and hostile Indians, Washington delivered the message and completed his mission. Washington also played a major role in the later conflicts between the British and French in America. During the ambush of Braddock’s expedition near Fort Duquesne Washington had two horses shot from under him and had his coat riddled with bullets. Yet he helped rally the British-American force and assisted in the retreat from danger.

After the shots were fired at Lexington and Concord to begin the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress unanimously elected Washington as commander-in-chief of the American forces. Washington took the existing armed rabble, and with a lot of hard work, turned it into an army. He led it in the struggle for years, overcoming severe defeats to finally win the crowning victory at Yorktown. Most importantly, after winning independence for his country, he surrendered his sword to Congress and returned to his farm. His former nemesis, King George III, was amazed by this return of power by Washington and called him “the greatest character of his age.”
Seeing the flaws in the Articles of Confederation and the need for a stronger union Washington was instrumental in calling the Constitutional Convention. Because of his prestige and wartime leadership he was chosen by the founding fathers to preside over the critical session. Washington helped shepherd the debate past many roadblocks to a successful conclusion, culminating in the development and eventual acceptance of the Constitution.

Called again to service by his country Washington was elected by unanimous vote of the Electoral College to be the first President of the United States. He served two terms and helped the fledgling country navigate the early years of independence. He left the country stronger and on the path to greatness when he left the oval office. Again he returned to Mount Vernon, passing from this world on December 14, 1799.

Thomas Jefferson said of him, “For his was the singular destiny and merit, of leading the armies of his country successfully through an arduous war, for the establishment of its independence; of conducting its councils through the birth of a government, new in its forms and principles, until it had settled down into a quiet and orderly train; and of scrupulously obeying the laws through the whole of his career, civil and military, of which the history of the world furnishes no other example…”

We should be thankful for Washington’s gifts to the nation and honor the memory of this great man.

How much do you know about American history, government, international relations and economy? Find out at here. For your comparison purposes, the average college senior “achieved” a score of 54%, essentially an “F”.

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  1. […] this shouldn’t be too surprising. As I’ve noted elsewhere, in a test performed by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, only 68% of college freshman knew […]

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