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The Character of George Washington   

Richard Brookhiser

I want to talk today about two qualities of George Washington's character.

George Washington

The first is persistence. There's a line in the song "America the Beautiful": "Thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears." It means that the cities of America, unlike those of Europe, have not been torn and destroyed by war. That's not quite right. The city I live in, New York, has been attacked twice in American history.

The first attack was in the summer of 1776, and George Washington, commander-in-chief of the American army, was responsible for the city's defense. The Declaration of Independence had been read for the first time in New York on July 9. That very week, Americans on Long Island saw a British fleet moving toward New York Harbor. The British, who made camp on Staten Island, had at their command ten ships of the line, dozens of other ships, and 32,000 professional soldiers (including Hessians). To oppose this force, Washington had no navy, no ships, and 19,000 soldiers, most of them militia and most of them untrained. Over the next few months, he and his men fought two battles: the Battle of Long Island, in what is now Brooklyn, and the Battle of White Plains north of the city. They lost both.

The second attack on New York was on September 11, 2001. I live about three miles north of the Trade Center site. It was a primary day, so I was out to vote, and I could see the plume of smoke quite clearly from both of the towers. It was a beautiful fall day. Then I had to go to work at National Review, where I watched the towers burning on television. I have a friend in upstate New York who's an artisan. He makes and designs furniture and builds houses, and when he saw the towers burning on television, he said to his father, "Those buildings are coming down," and he got up and left the room. I'm not an artisan, so I didn't know they were coming down. I watched them fall, and then I left the room to write about it for National Review.

New York lost 3,000 men and women on 9/11, far more than the several hundred American soldiers who were killed in the battles of 1776. But for the rest of the Revolutionary War, the British kept all their American prisoners on ships in the East River, where they were not well fed, had no good air, and were given barely any water. Every morning the British would say, "Rebels, throw out your dead," and corpses would be pitched overboard. Eleven thousand men died on those ships, and for years people in Brooklyn found skeletons on the waterfront.

We lost the two Trade Towers on 9/11, along with several smaller buildings. George Washington lost the entire city, which the British occupied for the remainder of the war. The British could also be said to have used weapons of mass destruction: They encouraged slaves to run away from their American masters with the promise of freedom, but any slave who had smallpox was sent back in the hope that he would infect his fellow slaves and rebel masters.

It's been less than two years since 9/11 and we've fought two short wars: Afghanistan was about six weeks, Iraq about three weeks. The American Revolution lasted eight-and-a-half years. It was the longest American war until Vietnam — longer than the Civil War and our part in World War II put together.

So we have our problems, but Washington had his. And in many ways his were worse: America was much weaker then, and the enemy it faced was much stronger. Washington's persistence through the Revolutionary War was remarkable. But it didn't end there. When the war was over and he retired to private life, he was called upon to serve again. He presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, was inaugurated as the first president in 1789, and served as president for two terms. So the full time of his service — including the war, the Constitutional Convention and his eight years as president — was 17 years.

Franklin Roosevelt served 12 years as president and died a month after his fourth inauguration. Jefferson, Wilson and Reagan each served eight years as president. Lincoln served four years as president and was murdered a month after his second inauguration. Washington served 17 years at the center of American life — a record that has not been matched. Washington's mother is supposed to have said, when told of one of his Revolutionary War victories, "George generally completes what he undertakes." He certainly did, and he did so through a lifetime of public service.

Paradox of Republican Leadership

The second quality of Washington's character I want to mention is the ability to let go and knowing when to let go. This quality, in a way, contradicted Washington's persistence, and largely for that reason it is even more remarkable. It is more remarkable because it was a new thing at the time. Nowadays, we know that in a republic, the military power serves the civilian power. We know that elected officials serve for set terms, and that if they don't win reelection, they have to go home. This is part of our life today. It is what we expect. But in George Washington's lifetime, these were new ideas. Most of the rulers in the world were kings or monarchs of some sort. Holland and the Swiss Cantons were exceptions, but all of the major countries and most of the small ones were ruled by people who ruled them for life.

Washington lived in a time when royal rule began to be shaken. During his lifetime, the King of France was deposed and executed, and other monarchs would follow that path. But the new rulers who took their places did not, generally speaking, believe in letting go. Napoleon Bonaparte was a Corsican artillery officer who became first consul of France, then first consul for life, then emperor. His career as emperor was eventually ended, but it took a world war to end it. And that pattern has been repeated over and over again around the world.

Thus, at the end of the Revolutionary War, when Washington returned his commission to Congress, it was something very new. It was similarly new when, at the end of his second presidential term, he announced that he would not run a third time. These actions touch on a paradox of republican leadership. The paradox is this: If you are a leader, there are times when you must simply take charge and be superior to the people you lead. This is most common in military situations, but it happens in peacetime as well: A leader must use his charisma or some other transrational force to get his way, and if he doesn't, things will fall apart. Every leader understands this. But a leader in a republic must also understand that those times are temporary, that their term of leadership will pass, and that they must then pass from the scene. And the reason they have to pass from the scene is that the people they are leading are in fact their equals.

Washington kept both of those thoughts in mind throughout his career, which explains a feature of his rhetoric that comes up again and again. This feature is so common in his letters and speeches that I think of it as the "turn" in his rhetoric: it occurs when Washington takes the attention and the adulation that comes to him, and turns it back to his audience. He does this to remind himself, as well as them, that he is a temporary leader of equals. We can see this in his Farewell Address, where he starts off by saying, "My friends and fellow citizens," and goes on to say that he has succeeded as president only because of the help the people gave him during his administration. We see it also in the last message that he wrote as commander-in-chief, where he said that the future happiness of America would depend on the people themselves — that their government was a good government, but that its survival was up to them.

One of the most striking instances of Washington turning attention from himself to others is what I believe to be the only authentic utterance we have from him on a battlefield. Of course, after he died, old veterans remembered a lot of things he said in battle. But much of this was embroidered: There was a General Scott, for instance, who remembered Washington at the battle of Monmouth cursing at General Charles Lee. "He swore like an angel from Heaven," Scott recalled. "He swore 'til the leaves shook on the trees. Never in my life have I heard such wonderful swearing." The problem is, General Scott at the time was two miles away, so unless he had bionic ears, he didn't hear anything. There is one phrase, however, that comes up over and over again in the accounts of many different people, for which reason I suspect it's a real quote. It's a phrase Washington used to address his troops — "my brave fellows."

At the battle of Princeton, Washington is reported to have said, "Parade with me, my brave fellows. We will have them soon." Before the battle of Trenton, when he was trying to get the troops to re-enlist, he said: "My brave fellows, you have done more than could be expected of you. But I'm asking you to do this one more thing and re-enlist." Time and again he uses this phrase. And in doing so, of course, he's asserting what remains to be seen: The soldiers, at the moment he addresses them, are not necessarily showing bravery. They may be confused. They may not know what is expected of them. They may be on the point of panic or fear. But he addresses them as "my brave fellows" to motivate them.

This is not the only way to motivate troops. Other generals have done it differently. Frederick the Great would say to his troops, "Do you dogs want to live forever?" That's one way to do it. But Washington's way was to say, "my brave fellows," which means, "My fellows, be brave."

This leads me to a final point about Washington's character, which is that it's unfinished. It's not completed, and I think that's by design. Washington made a bet with his life that the American people could bear the burden and responsibility of living in freedom. That bet is on the table in every generation. The completion of Washington's character, then, always rests with us.


Richard Brookhiser. "The Character of George Washington." Imprimis (July 2003): 1-6.

Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, the national speech digest of Hillsdale College (, 33 East College St, Hills dale, Michigan 49242. Subscriptions to Imprimis, are free upon request, ISBN 0277-8432. 800/437-2268.

This article is adapted from a speech delivered at the dedication of a statue of George Washington on the Hillsdale College campus on May 9, 2003. The statue (shown above) is the first in a series that will form the Hillsdale College Liberty Walk.


Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor at National Review, a columnist for the New York Observer, and a frequent contributor to American Heritage and the New York Times Book Review. His books include Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington; Alexander Hamilton: American; America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918; and, most recently, Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris – The Rake Who Wrote the Constitution. He has also written and hosted a documentary, Rediscovering George Washington, which originally aired on PBS on July 4, 2002.

Copyright © 2003 Imprimis



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