Legacy of George Washington

From Infogalactic: the planetary knowledge core
(Redirected from George Washington's legacy)
Jump to: navigation, search

George Washington (February 22, 1732 – December 14, 1799) commanded America's war for independence (1775–1783), and was the first President of the United States, from 1789 to 1797. Because of his central role in the founding of the United States, Washington is often called the "Father of his Country." His devotion to republicanism and civic virtue made him an exemplary figure among early American politicians.

Public Opinion

Statue of Washington outside the Federal Hall Memorial in lower Manhattan, site of Washington's first inauguration as President

Congressman Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, a Revolutionary War comrade and father of the American Civil War general Robert E. Lee, famously eulogized Washington as:

First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in humble and enduring scenes of private life. Pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding; his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting. . . . Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues. . . . Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.

Lee's words set the standard by which Washington's overwhelming reputation was impressed upon the American memory. Washington set many precedents for the national government and the presidency in particular. In 1951 the unwritten two-term limit set by Washington would become the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution. He also set constitutional precedent by being the first president to use the Presidential Veto.[1]

As early as 1778 he was lauded as the "Father of His Country"[2] and is often considered to be the most important of Founding Fathers of the United States. He has gained fame around the world as a quintessential example of a benevolent national founder. As Gordon Wood concludes, the greatest act in his life was his resignation as commander of the armies—an act that stunned aristocratic Europe.[3] According to painter Benjamin West (as recorded in the diaries of his colleague Joseph Farington):

West told me that ... [a]fter the defeat of Lord Cornwallis ... West had occasion to go to the Queens Palace to transact some business for the Queen, which when He had done it, she asked him if He was engaged that morning. He said not. She then told him to go into Her Closet with Her which He did & found the King [George III] sitting there. -- The King began to talk abt. America. He asked West what would Washington do were America to be declared independant. [sic] West said He believed He would retire to a private situation. -- The King said if He did He would be the greatest man in the world.[4]

Washington was long considered not just a military and revolutionary hero, but a man of great personal integrity, with a deeply held sense of duty, honor and patriotism. He was upheld as a shining example in schoolbooks and lessons: as courageous and farsighted, holding the Continental Army together through eight hard years of war and numerous privations, sometimes by sheer force of will; and as restrained: at war's end taking affront at the notion he should be King; and after two terms as President, stepping aside.

In 1790, Washington's close friend Benjamin Franklin died. In Franklin's will, he bequeathed Washington his walking cane, which Franklin received while serving as ambassador to France during the 1780s. Franklin spoke highly of Washington, even as a king, in his will:

"My fine crab-tree walking stick, with a gold head curiously wrought in the form of the cap of liberty, I give to my friend, and the friend of mankind, General Washington. If it were a Sceptre, he has merited it, and would become it."[5]

Washington was always the exemplar of republican virtue in America. He is seen more as a character model than war hero or founding father. One of Washington's greatest achievements, in terms of republican values, was refraining from taking more power than was due. He was conscientious of maintaining a good reputation by avoiding political intrigue. He had no interest in nepotism or cronyism, rejecting, for example, a military promotion during the war for his deserving cousin William Washington lest it be regarded as favoritism. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish."[6]


Further information: George Washington and slavery
This 19th-century engraving is an idealized depiction of Washington supervising his slaves at Mount Vernon.

The survival of the United States in large part depended on the actions of George Washington, the dynamic leader in the American Revolution and the country's first President. Washington believed that the institution of slavery on its own would eventually die out and be replaced by an industrial revolution that was beginning to emerge in the Northern states. Washington hoped that the factories built in the North would eventually take root and be built in the South. The demise of slavery, however, was never Washington's primary goal as leader of the nation. Washington believed that the security of the new nation was paramount and for this reason he never publicly spoke out against the imbedded American institution.[7]

Prior to the American Revolution, Washington never displayed any animosity towards slavery. His views on slavery were modified during the Revolution, between 1775 and 1784, having been influenced by the egalitarian belief that men were born with natural rights. Washington also discovered during the Revolution that free blacks who served in the Revolutionary Army could match the industry, dedication, and courage exhibited by white soldiers. After the Revolution, however, Washington was resistant to cut his ties with slavery, an institution that brought him and his family material accouterments, a lavish lifestyle, and inheritance. Although privately expressing "regret" over slavery, Washington was hesitant to cut his personal ties with the institution even at the urging of prominent abolitionists. The only acts of contrition for Washington after the War was his refusal to sell and break up slave families and his discontinued use of whipping as corporal punishment.[8]

In 1794, while President, to resolve his dilemma over slavery, Washington attempted to lease property at Mount Vernon to English farmers on the condition that former slaves would work as paid free laborers. This idea had been postulated to Washington by a young French abolitionist, Marquis de Lafayette, in a 1784 meeting at Mt. Vernon. However, the plan proved to be improbable and no buyers could be found to purchase the land. Although Washington himself could have freed his own slaves and paid them as workers, he never did. Finally in 1799, Washington made a new secret will without his family's knowledge, that would free all the slaves he owned after his wife, Martha, died. The younger freedmen were to be taught to read and write and "brought up to some useful occupation", while the elderly were to be taken care of by his remaining family. His slaves were to be allowed to remain in Virginia and not allowed to be compelled to leave, "under any pretense whatsoever." According to historians, his death in 1799 under his new will in essence condemned Mt. Vernon to ruin and was in effect an act of atonement for Washington's lifetime involvement in human exploitation. Martha voluntarily freed Washington's slaves in 1800, sixteen months prior to her own death.[9]

George Washington by Charles Willson Peale, c. 1776

Monuments and memorials

Washington is commemorated on the U.S. quarter.

Washington's face and image are often used as national symbols of the United States, along with the icons such as the flag and great seal. Perhaps the most pervasive commemoration of his legacy is the use of his image on the one-dollar bill and the quarter-dollar coin. Washington, together with Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, is depicted in stone at the Mount Rushmore Memorial.

Construction on the George Washington portrait at Mount Rushmore, c. 1932.

Many things have been named in honor of Washington. George Washington is the namesake of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and the state of Washington, the only state to be named for a president. The Washington Monument, one of the most well-known American landmarks, was built in his honor. A variety of colleges and universities, throughout the United States, are named for George Washington. The United States Navy has named three ships after Washington. The George Washington Bridge, which extends between New York City and New Jersey, and the palm tree genus Washingtonia, are also named after him. A bronze statue of Washington stands in London at the National Gallery, a gift from the Commonwealth of Virginia.[10]

Obverse of the $1 bill

Though he had been the highest-ranking officer of the Revolutionary War, having in 1798 been appointed a Lieutenant General (now three stars), it seemed, somewhat incongruously, that all later full four star and higher generals were considered to outrank Washington. This issue was resolved in the bicentennial year of 1976 when Washington was, by act of Congress, posthumously promoted to the rank of General of the Armies, this promotion being backdated to July 4, 1976.,[11] making Washington permanently the senior military officer of the United States.

Centennial celebration

President Harrison rowed ashore at Wall Street, April 29, 1889.
Washington Inaugural Celebration, 1889, New York. Parade passing Union Square on Broadway.

The centennial anniversary of Washington's inauguration as President fell on April 30, 1889. In observance of the occasion President Benjamin Harrison followed the itinerary of one hundred years before, from the Governor's mansion in New Jersey to the foot of Wall Street, in New York City, to old Saint Paul's Church, on Broadway, and to the site where the first Chief Magistrate first took the oath of office. Three days were a round of naval, military, and industrial parades, with music, oratory, pageantry, and festivities. For this Centennial Whittier composed an ode. The venerable S. F. Smith, who had written "America" fifty-seven years before, was also inspired by the occasion to pen a Century Hymn, and to add to "America" the stanza:[12]

Our joyful hearts today,
Their grateful tribute pay,
Happy and free,
After our toils and fears,
After our blood and tears,
Strong with our hundred years,
O God, to Thee.

Washington Arch (1892) in Washington Square Park, NYC, is perhaps the nation's most prominent monument celebrating the centennial of Washington's inauguration.

See also


  1. George Washington Biography. American-Presidents.com. Retrieved on 20 October 2008.
  2. The earliest known image in which Washington is identified as such is on the cover of the circa 1778 Pennsylvania German almanac (Lancaster: Gedruckt bey Francis Bailey). This identifies Washington as "Landes Vater" or Father of the Land.
  3. Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), pp 105-6; Edmund Morgan, The Genius of George Washington (1980), pp 12-13; Sarah J. Purcell, Sealed With Blood: War, Sacrifice, and Memory in Revolutionary America (2002) p. 97; Don Higginbotham, George Washington (2004); Ellis, 2004
  4. Farington, Joseph (1922). Greig, James, ed. The Farington Diary, vol. i. London: Hutchinson. p. 278. , entry for December 28 1799.
  5. Smithsonian Institution entry on Franklin's cane
  6. Jefferson to Washington Apr 16, 1784
  7. Ferling (2000), Setting the World Ablaze, pages 274-277
  8. Ferling (2000), Setting the World Ablaze, pages 274-277
  9. Ferling (2000), Setting the World Ablaze, pages 274-277
  10. http://golondon.about.com/od/londonpictures/ig/Less-seen-Sights/George-Washington-Statue.htm
  11. Promotion order of George Washington, Military Personnel Records Center (Image:Orders 31-3.jpg and Image:Orders 31-3 Cover Letter.jpg).
  12. Andrews, E. Benjamin (1912). History of the United States. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.