George Washington: An American Legend
George Washington is an American hero. His legendary career has been told and retold, so often that they almost seem untrue. It's a terrible injustice because George Washington was truly one of the most remarkable people in American history.
At the time of the revolution, Washington was 43 years old. He was one of the wealthiest men in the colonies, having inherited a lot of land and money, and married into more. Although he had been a soldier in the wars against the French and Native Americans, Washington had never commanded more than 1,200 men at any one time. There were other colonists who had more military command experience.
But the Second Continental Congress, which had convened in May 1775 and taken over the running of the Revolution (even though no one had actually asked it to), decided on Washington as the Continental army’s commander in chief.
Their choice was based more on political reasons than military ones. New England leaders figured that putting a Virginian in charge would increase the enthusiasm of the Southern colonies to fight; the Southern leaders agreed. Washington wasn’t so sure and said so with his characteristic modesty.
I declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with, he told Congress, and then refused to take any salary for the job.
George Washington's character flaws
Washington had his faults. He wasn’t a military genius, and he lost a lot more than he won on the battlefield. In fact, his greatest military gifts were in organizing retreats and avoiding devastating losses. He had no discernable sense of humor and was a snob when it came to mixing with what he considered the lower classes.
He also had a terrible temper. At one point, he was so angry with the lack of discipline and acts of cowardice in the American army that he unsuccessfully asked Congress to increase the allowable number of lashes for punishing soldiers from 39 to 500. Once he was so angry at a subordinate, he broke his personal rule against swearing. He swore that day till the leaves shook on the trees, recalled an admiring onlooker. Charming! Delightful! . . . sir, on that memorable day, he swore like an angel from heaven.
George Washington's leadership abilities
In spite of his flaws, Washington was a born leader, one of those men who raised spirits and expectations simply by showing up. He was tall and athletic, an expert horseman and a good dancer. He wasn’t particularly handsome — his teeth were bad, and he wasn’t proud of his hippopotamus ivory and gold dentures, so he seldom smiled.
But he had a commanding presence, and his troops felt they could depend on him. He was also a bit of an actor. Once while reading something to his troops, he donned his spectacles, and then apologized, explaining his eyes had grown dim in the service of his country. Some of his audience wept.
He also had an indomitable spirit. His army was ragged, undisciplined, and undependable, with a staggering average desertion rate of 20 percent. His bosses in Congress were often indecisive, quarrelsome, and indifferent. But Washington simply refused to give up. Just as important, he refused the temptation to try to become a military dictator, which he may easily have done.
One of the reasons many men loved him was that Washington was personally brave, often on the frontlines of battles, and always among the last to retreat. He was also incredibly lucky: In one battle, Washington rode unexpectedly into a group of British soldiers, most of whom fired at him at short range. They all missed.
Above all, Washington was a survivor. He drove the British army crazy (they called him the old fox even though he wasn’t all that old), never staying to fight battles he was losing, and never fully retreating. He bought his new country time — time to find allies and time to wear down the British will to keep fighting.