In our more cynical, superficial age we find it hard to imagine the set of circumstances that would lead a man to risk all that he had, and give up the greater portion of his life, to an idea. 279 years ago today, such a man was born in the colony of Virginia, and his indomitable life quest almost single-handedly made possible the American Experiment. There was no expectation in early life of his sacrificial nature, borne to a prominent Virginia family, and he could have settled in to a life of plantation farming and land acquisition that was his family’s mantra. Something restless and animal was part of his makeup , however, and his early journeys into the wilderness to survey land created a unique need not seen in other family members. This man, George Washington, was tuned into a special stereophonic muse that was characterized both by the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Possibility. His forays into the vast American continent began to coalesce for him that this particular land was special, and the capacity of each individual man special, within it. He began to seek positions that would both make possible the maximization of who he was, and steadily, the risks he would need to face to achieve fulfillment.
The young adult Washington showed a warrior instinct. He was named the military leader of an attachment that was to derive the position of the competing French in the Ohio country coveted by both the British and French superpowers, and managed in a short time time get himself involved in both a massacre of French soldiers near present day Pittsburgh, and later a complementary catastrophic massacre of British soldiers in the ill fated Braddock expedition to eject the French. The sequence of events showed Washington to be aggressive, impetuous, and in a trait glorified later in life, unconscionably brave and seemingly immune to battle chaos or bullets. The controversies of these events left the British and the American politicians with different impressions of the Virginian Washington. The British saw him as inferior to the British officer ideal with his Americanized instincts for cagey warfare over stand and shoot soldiering. The Americans saw him as an example of individual creativity and persistence. Both concepts were of Washington, but did not completely describe him, to those who later felt they knew how the “true” Washington in battle would respond.
A leap forward in time to 1775, and the continental congress is desirous of a leader that holds both warrior skills and revolutionary ideals in his make-up. There was frankly little “in-house” experience to chose from, but Washington recognized before anyone that the warrior leader would have to a special hybrid. He would need to be able to commune with the common man who would ultimately provide a volunteer force that would need to be willing to sacrifice and die for abstract ideas, and would have to project a consistent warrior bearing and confidence that would assure all that taking on the most powerful military on earth and winning was not the ludicrous proposition it seemed. He played these two roles to perfection, and retrospectively, was the unique persona for the impossible task.
The revolutionary war years of 1775 to 1783 were epitomized by the crushing reality of the sacrifices necessary by men like Washington to achieve the miracle of independence. The challenges were overwhelming. He was required to fight the greatest military force in the world with a rag tag army of citizen soldiers with little military training and limited resources. He was challenged time and time again to rebuild this volunteer army as deferments ran out, or men simply gave up on the intolerable nature of it all. He was expected to maintain a continental strategy with troops who were thinking that their home to defend was their own state and not necessarily the “foreign” state to which they were forced to defend. He was forced to defend his actions in defeat after painful defeat against individual politicians who thought they knew better and refused to monetarily support the cause or mandate the troops. He did this all continuously for eight years with a price on his head, away from his home, under atrocious conditions, and with the foreknowledge that defeat meant for him certain death and loss of all that he had. He faced all these enormous obstacles – and he won.
When it came time years later to select a chief executive that would form the initial government of the United States, the selection again turned to one man, the Virginian, Washington. He was selected not for any impassioned rhetorical brilliance or acknowledged philosophical depth, but again, because he was the single individual every competing interest group felt they could trust. He was selected for his acknowledged ownership of the American Ideal through the worst of times, and his willingness as a man, to give up power when it was his to take. As the first President of these United States he set for all time the standard that the office, not the man, the Constitution, not the trappings, were the key ingredients of the American Experiment.
On his birthday, at a time when mediocrity of character and lack of in-depth understanding of what makes this American Experiment work frequently desires to inhabit the office of President, our first president, the Virginian, stands forever, like a colossus.