George Washington’s character


Question: Some writers say that George Washington was not really a great person in terms of his character. Others say that he truly was a great man. Whom should we believe?
From: Denise A. of Savannah, GA

Date: February 22, 2005

Gleaves answers: It appears that you have embarked on a fascinating search for the real George Washington — not an easy task. Passage in Foreword to Marshall about Marshall’s Life vs. Jefferson‘s anas.

since over the years historians have created, in effect, three Washingtons. (1) There is the nineteenth-century George Washington, the Washington of Parson Mason Weems whose hagiography idealized the Father of Our Country; he made the hero of Mount Vernon into the literary equivalent of a marble statue. (2) Then there is the George Washington of late, the Washington of politically correct monographs that topple the marble statue off its pedestal and reveal it to have feet of clay, and not the purist clay at that; in their hands, the first president is not an aloof demigod but a hypocrite with regard to slavery. (3) Then there is the George Washington of historians who try objectively to examine the evidence that reveals the subject’s warts and all (not just the warts); biographers who have rendered as accurate a portrait as possible of a complex, often inscrutable man who nevertheless comes to life in the pages of Douglas Southall Freeman, James Thomas Flexner, Marcus Cunliffe, and, most recently, Joseph Ellis.

Patriotic Americans want George Washington to be a secular saint; they always have. Biographer Douglas Southall Freeman observed in 1948, after the U.S. had waged a life-and-death struggle against totalitarian dictatorships and was consolidating its reputation as not just a powerful but a good nation, “The integrity of the United States was assumed, for some reason, to presuppose the flawlessness of Washington‘s character. Complete faith in him was part of the creed of loyalty.”[1]

In the best biographies, George Washington is a congeries of strengths and weaknesses — with the strengths slowly but surely supplanting the weaknesses over the course of his life. (Don’t we all hope that virtue wins out over our vices and pecadillos over one’s lifetime?) The historical evidence shows that Washington was not great when he was in his twenties. But by the time he was in his fifties, he was, and people on both sides of the Atlantic recognized it. The inescapable conclusion is that George Washington’s character grew; he developed morally.

Despite the publication of outstanding, influential biographies of the Father of Our Country, a strong sense of myth still surrounds the man. Henry Weincek recently observed: “On the one hand, the myth of Washington hides a great deal — his pride, his ambition, his acquisitiveness (some might call it greed), and his willingness to subordinate the weak to his ambition. But on the other hand, the myth does not do him justice, for he transformed himself, shedding his ambition and his self-seeking, to bring liberty to a people who were exasperatingly indifferent and reluctant to share sacrifice. It has been said that he was bedeviled by feelings of inadequacy, perhaps resulting from his difficult relationship with his mother and the absence of a father. Certainly he was keenly aware of his lack of education. But against this he threw a relentless drive for attainment and a habit of discipline. In his young adulthood this drive had no other object beyond his own aggrandizement. When he committed himself to the patriot cause, this drive, this discipline, this single-mindedness helped win the nation its independence.”[2]

In addition to Henry Wiencek’s book, I would also refer you to Joseph Ellis’s new biography of Washington called His Excellency. Ellis carefully examines the historical record, which reveals that the young Washington was capable of lying; that he was too status conscious, grasping to rise in the Virginia gentry; that he was stubbornly arrogant (at church services he refused to kneel as most parishioners did); that he was overly ambitious; that he was willing to risk others’ lives to achieve his own advancement; that he was greedy in land schemes that were meant to benefit all the veterans with whom he served; that he was overly eager to criticize and undermine his commanding officers behind their back; that he was slow to recognize the inhumanity of slavery; that in his intemperance he was willing to start the French and Indian War — really, the first world war.

To show how Washington’s character grew, it is instructive to look at him during two different crises in his life; compare his behavior in the Fort Necessity campaign of 1754, when he was 22 years old, to his behavior during the Newburgh conspiracy of 1783, when he was 51.

FortNecessity campaign (1754)

The Fort Necessity campaign of 1754 provides a snapshot of Washington‘s character in his early twenties and has been treated at length in most of the standard biographies. The desire for fame, the allure of adventure, the stress of battle — these show what Washington was like in his early twenties, and he proved to be less than a stellar character. Two days after the massacre of French troops that he led at Jumonville Glen, for example, George Washington wrote his brother John Augustine and described his reaction to the 15-minute ambush: “I fortunately escaped without a wound, tho’ the right Wing where I stood was exposed to & received all the Enemy’s fire and was the part where the man was killed and the rest wounded. I can with truth assure you, I heard Bulletts whistle and believe me there was something charming in the sound.”

For his conduct in the Fort Necessity campaign, Washington was criticized in several quarters, not just by the French, but also by the governor of Maryland.

Newburgh (1783)


Newburgh, or the New Windsor cantonment, in 1783.

What happened?

These two events — Jumonville and Newburgh, separated by a little under three decades and a little over 300 miles — reveal strikingly different sketches of the same individual. What happened to change him?

In brief, Washington grew to recognize and accept that he was put on earth to serve something bigger than his own advancement, something more than I-me-mine. Once he fully absorbed that he was an instrument of history, an instrument of Providence, and that he was required to be a midwife at the birth of the new republic, he disciplined his fierce passions and overarching ambition. He brought his character into line with the requirements of greatness.

At Jumonville Washington lost with weapons; at Newburgh he won with wisdom. At Jumonville his strength was raw physical courage; at Newburgh it was moral character.

Washington could stop an army from marching on Congress. He did that not because of physical strength; not because of temporal threats; but because of love.

Indeed, at Newburgh we hardly recognize the young man in the Ohio country. Saints are not born; they are made. Same with heroes.

So what happened in that 30 years between Pittsburgh and Newburgh? What reflection and experience forged his character?

Principly two things happened in GW’s character:

1. Washington showed a capacity to learn life’s lessons early and well. The old saying is apt: the smart learn from their own mistakes; the wise learn from others’ mistakes. Braddock campaign of 1755.

2. Washington fully absorbed what was at stake in the American Revolution — something greater than I-me-mine. He came to believe that he was an instrument of history, of Providence. This made him capable of heroic sacrifice. This in turn would allow him to lead by stellar example.

Physical discomforts. Over the course of an eight-year war, he slept in 280 different houses — a new lodging every 10 days. That’s why there are signs all up and down the East Coast that say, “George Washington slept here.”

Financial sacrifice. Accepted command of the Continental Army without pay. He took a big loss at Mount Vernon.

Restraining his impulses — anger, aggressiveness. Mastery over self. (Alexander the Great: could conquer the world, but not himself.) When he mastered himself, he earned his mastery over others, which they gave to him.


Describing his crystallizing insight into the founding generation, Joseph Ellis wrote: “It seemed to me that Benjamin Franklin was wiser than Washington; Alexander Hamilton was more brilliant; John Adams was better read; Thomas Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated; James Madison was more politically astute. Yet each and all of these prominent figures acknowledged that Washington was their unquestioned superior … the Foundingest Father of them all.”

Why? It was because of his character. It was because of his character that Washington would go on to be unanimously elected to head the Continental Congress, and then two terms as president. Called first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. The indispensible man in America‘s founding.


[1]Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington: A Biography, vol. 1 (New York: Scribner, 1948), p. xv.

[2]Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), pp. 12-13.