written by Todd DePastino

1776 portrait of a younger George Washington in uniform

Charles Willson Peale, 1776, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At first glance, it’s a stupid question. He was Commander-in-Chief for 21 years. He was “The Father of Our Country,” a phrase first applied to him during the American Revolution. He presided over the Constitutional Convention. And he practically created the office of President of the United States.

 “First in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen.”—that’s how Richard Henry Lee eulogized Washington at his funeral in 1799.

George Washington’s greatness is not in question. At one time, every schoolroom in the nation had a portrait of George Washington in it.

The question, rather, is: what powers did Washington possess to warrant his place at the furthest reach of the Founding firmament?

The answer, it seems, involves both his character and how he presented himself in public. He appeared exemplary to Americans in a way his contemporaries didn’t.

Those contemporaries — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton — for all their diverse gifts, didn’t share Washington’s character or personality.

These other Founders were each deeply flawed and, therefore, relatable to us in the 21st century, alternately infuriating and endearing.

Adams was the irascible and abrasively brilliant attorney—perfect material for an HBO series.

Jefferson the polymath championed human freedom, while he secretly fathered enslaved children. We’ve been obsessed with him ever since.

Another genius, Benjamin Franklin, was a boorish libertine who neglected his wife, fathered illegitimate children, drank too much, philandered habitually, and robbed graveyards for their cadavers to dissect. In other words, he was entertaining, even lovable.

And, of course, there’s Hamilton, a man so impulsive, tactless, arrogant, and brilliant it’s the stuff of modern opera.

George Washington can’t hold a candle to these fascinating eminences so colorful in their shortcomings they’re ready-made for contemporary Hollywood treatment.

Our first President, by contrast, seems as featureless as the Washington Monument and as flat as a one-dollar bill.

He betrayed little eccentricity, and no one ever accused him of being brilliant. Military experts consider him a good general, but not a great one. He wasn’t much of a strategist or tactician. Armed with an eighth-grade education, he couldn’t write or think like the others. He wasn’t an inventor like Jefferson or a subject-matter expert like Madison.

Washington was a poor speaker who couldn’t extemporize. He read from scripts verbatim. Once, he forgot his papers. So, instead of speaking, he just stood before the crowd silently. People cheered. They hadn’t come to hear him speak. They simply wanted to behold his presence.

George Washington was a marble man, best idolized from afar, more icon than flesh-and-blood.

Washington’s contemporaries puzzled over his appeal even as they held him in awe. They acknowledged that Washington was, as one historian put it, “the indispensable man” without whom the Founding would have been impossible. But they had trouble explaining exactly why.

John Adams gave it a shot in a letter to Benjamin Rush on November 11, 1807, eight years after Washington’s death.

In a prior letter, Rush had remarked about Washington’s “immense elevation above his fellows,” but seemed at a loss to pinpoint the first President’s X-factor.

Adams offered an insightful, if biting, list of 10 talents that had won Washington such admiration.

As you read them, keep in mind that Adams often clashed with Washington, and secretly envied the man he once dismissed as “Old Muttonhead.” 

“1. An handsome Face.”

The Western Enlightenment’s veneration of all things classical worked in George Washington’s favor when it came to looks. Like Plutarch’s Mark Antony, Washington had strong symmetrical features: aquiline nose, deep-set eyes, firm jaw. His sandy hair, gray-blue eyes, and engaging smile (until his teeth fell out) made him something of an eighteenth-century matinee idol.

“2. A tall Stature”

George Washington stood a little more than 6’2” in an age when the average height was 5’8”. He often complained to his London-based tailors that his clothes were too short. It was as if, without Washington being there in person, the tailors couldn’t believe his measurements could possibly be accurate.

And Washington wasn’t just tall, but proportionately large. He had a powerful mesomorphic physique, like an early American LeBron James.

In the modern era, Washington might have become a professional athlete. He certainly excelled at every sport he practiced, and there were many. He wrestled and fought with broad swords, swam and practiced archery, and indulged in every kind of throwing game. He never tossed the legendary silver dollar across the Potomac, but his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, vividly recalled him hurling a piece of slate across the narrower Rappahannock and also over the 215-foot natural bridge formation in Rockbridge County, Virginia.

But his best sport was horseback riding, the king of talents in the 1700s. Thomas Jefferson called Washington “the best horseman of the age.” That sobriquet alone, if accurate, commended Washington to public office and military command.

“3. An elegant form”

George Washington dressed, groomed, accoutered himself impeccably, and, when the occasion called for it, magnificently. You’ll see admiring historians protest that though Washington was obsessed with his appearance, he wasn’t vain. But if spending hours and a fortune on one’s clothing, hair, and accessories isn’t vanity, then what is?

Washington hand-picked and custom-ordered the ribbons, buttons, and embroidery that decorated his self-designed uniforms. Otherwise frugal, he spent huge sums of money on English tailors because he never found an American one he trusted.

He sweated hours every week on his hair alone. His enslaved valet, Will Lee, oversaw the grueling process of brushing, curling, greasing, and powdering twice a day. The procedure involved a robe, a cone to cover Washington’s face, and bellows to blow the chalky powder all over the pomaded hair. Finally, a black silk bag was slipped over Washington’s braided ponytail and tied off. This was to prevent any of the white powder from leaving specks on dust on his back.

“4. Graceful Attitudes and Movement”

The trick to preventing all that hair powder from falling on his shoulders like dandruff was to move like a dancer. It was called “attitude,” and Washington had plenty of it.

That is, he rehearsed his movements—sitting, standing, walking, riding–for public performance. And he was always performing.

The proving ground for Washington’s “attitude” was the Virginia country manor, specifically the ballroom. Washington danced the minuet masterfully, following “Virginia rules,” in which the first dance went to the couple of highest social rank—usually George and Martha—while everyone else watched and critiqued them. Then, the next ranking couple joined the floor, then the next. The exhibition would be recounted and judged for posterity in planter-class diaries the next day.

Slow, ceremonial, and highly choreographed, the minuet belonged to an older and more courtly world than that of New England, New York, and Philadelphia with its market-driven bustle. To moderns, such lack of spontaneity strikes us as stiff, stuffy, and inauthentic. But to Washington, self-presentation was the key to self-creation. And Washington was, above all, a self-made man.

“5. Large and imposing fortune”

With the listing of this “Talent,” Adams turns from Washington’s physical appearance to his material possessions. Born well-off, but by no means in the top rank of aristocratic Virginia, George Washington made his money largely through marriage and land speculation.

In 1758, Washington met a young widow, Martha Dandridge Custis, and fell in love . . . with her fortune. Marrying Martha made George one of the richest men in Virginia. He used that wealth to acquire western acreage, which he sold at a profit. At one point, Washington owned 70,000 acres, perhaps more than any American of his day, stretching over six present-day states. The love of George Washington’s life, next to Martha and his country, was real estate.

“6. Washington was a Virginian. This is equivalent to five Talents.”

Being a wealthy Virginian made Washington instantly important. Virginia was the oldest, largest, and wealthiest American colony. The other colonies could do little without Virginia’s cooperation. If Virginia hadn’t entered the Confederation against the British in 1775, the cause would have been lost. Same with the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

And Virginia played by a different set of rules than other colonies and states, especially those in New England. Rigid, unified, and aloof from social inferiors, Virginia high society didn’t mix well with the more abrasive, democratic, and diverse New Englanders who struck Washington as a petulant rabble.

In 1775, after Lexington and Concord, New Englanders needed a Virginian in command to legitimate their cause. Washington obliged, but he was horrified by the impertinent Cambridge militiamen who didn’t like taking orders and didn’t habitually defer to their social betters. This “leveling spirit” in the militia had either to be accommodated or suppressed in order to create the Continental Army.

“7. The English had used him ill”

It’s not true, as Adams seems to suggest in his letter, that the British blamed Washington for the disastrous Battle of the Monongahela, when two-thirds of General Edward Braddock’s expedition was killed or wounded by a force of French and Native Americans near present-day Pittsburgh in 1755. Washington, in fact, was celebrated for effecting a strategic withdrawal from the field.

But Adams is right that the British Army had mistreated Washington. That’s certainly what Washington himself believed and said so publicly. Washington’s main grievance was that the red-coated Army didn’t offer him a commission commensurate with his talents and experience. Instead, he remained a colonel in the blue-coated Virginia colonial militia, a second-class officer junior to a captain in the British Regulars.

Washington burned with indignation at the slight. But he went public with his grievance not for himself but on behalf of fellow militiamen. He thought British Army officers were arrogant and undisciplined, unworthy of their station. The failure of the British to promote Washington became a minor cause célèbre among the colonists, a glaring example of the ceiling placed on Americans’ advancement.

“8. Gift of Silence”

George Washington was not a speaker. That is, he spoke very little in public and in private. For Washington, it was a matter of discipline. He trained himself to keep his mouth shut.

Such reticence doesn’t fit with modern American ideals of leadership. We believe in speaking our minds, being forthright and honest. Telling it like it is.

Not Washington.

When he was 14 years old, Washington read a translation of a French handbook, Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour In Company and Conversation, written by a Jesuit priest in the 16th century. He studied and copied it word-by-word in his own hand.

Rules of Civility is a guide to self-control. At least one-third of its 110 rules have to do with speech: what to say and how to say it. A gentleman’s default position should be to say nothing and to speak as little as possible. Washington adhered to this recommendation his whole life.

He believed there were two main reasons to keep quiet. First, your speech might offend the listener. Second, your views may be incorrect. At root of Washington’s public persona is a profound modesty and humility that endeared him to his fellow Americans.

“9. Self Command”

If Washington possessed one X-factor, this is it. Washington was self-disciplined. He made sure to work harder than everyone around him. Someone once remarked to Washington during the American Revolution that he accomplished more in one day than the speaker did in two.

Washington snapped back with something like, “I wake up two hours earlier and retire later than you do.”

But Washington’s self-command ran deeper than simply dedication and hard work. He saw life as a titanic and eternal struggle against his own passions, especially greed and ambition.

Human beings, he believed, are by nature selfish and irrational, violent and temperamental. We’re slaves to our passions. The purpose of civil society is to quell those passions. Autocracies suppress them by force, depriving people of their liberties so that they can’t indulge their primal instincts.

Republican society, however, boldly attempted to train its citizens to be self-mastering. If people could learn to control themselves—to be self-governing–they could enjoy liberty and free government.

George Washington’s greatest achievement, then, was his awesome powers of self-mastery. He literally embodied republican virtue, and his public performances were all about setting that example for America.

His pinnacle moments involved giving up power, restraining his self-interested desire to dominate.

The classical role model for Washington was the ancient Roman consul and general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. In 458 BCE, in the late days of Roman Republic, Cincinnatus was called from his peaceful farm life to lead a defense against invaders. After the enemy was vanquished, Roman citizens asked Cincinnatus to stay on as dictator, at least until the threat was safely past. Cincinnatus refused and returned to his farm.

Early Americans so cherished the Cincinnatus story, they named a city after him. And Washington so took it to heart, he staged elaborate ceremonies every time he resigned from office and relinquished power.

The most memorable of these was on December 23, 1783, in the Old Senate Chamber in Annapolis. The war over and independence won, Washington bowed to Congress, publicly resigned from the Army, and physically handed back his commission. It was all choreographed for maximum impact.

Word of Washington’s plan to surrender power even reached King George III in England. The king reportedly said to painter Benjamin West, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

In an age when other men were willing to convulse continents to amass more power, here was a shining example of one who had been offered a kingdom and had the self-command to say no.

The irony, of course, is that by demonstrating his ability to refuse power, Washington ensured he’d offered more of it. And he was pulled from retirement several times, first to lead the Constitutional Convention of 1787, then to serve as President.

In 1796, after two terms as Executive and Commander-in-Chief, Washington offered his last Farewell Address. Refusing a third term, he once again resigned from command.

In return for giving up power, George Washington won the unalloyed love and adulation of his countrymen, which, in the end, is what he craved most.

“10. Whenever he lost his temper as he did Sometimes, either Love or fear in those about him induced them to conceal his Weakness from the World.”

With this final listing of George Washington’s unique “Talents,” John Adams suggests that the marble man was human, after all. Washington had a temper, a terrible one, and anyone who spent much time with him saw, if not felt, its ferocious bite.

He lashed out at soldiers, adjutants, servants, underlings of all sorts, sometimes physically.

Once, at a social event after George’s death, painter Gilbert Stuart supposedly remarked that Washington’s face betrayed more suppressed rage than any he’d ever painted. An embarrassed Stuart then looked over and saw that Martha was in the room.

“It is true,” said Martha, forgiving the painter for his candor.

New Yorker Gouverneur Morris, who spent the summer of 1787 with Washington at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, also attested to the great man’s explosive temper.

“Those who have seen him strongly moved,” said Morris, “will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man.”

“Heaven,” Morris went on to say, “in giving him higher qualities of the soul, had given also the tumultuous passions which accompany his greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself.”

Like other Americans, Morris declared Washington’s victory over his passions, even if such a declaration wasn’t entirely warranted.

Adams suggests there was a conspiracy of silence about Washington’s flaws. Early Americans, it seemed, needed an idealized George Washington as a guidestar, an exemplar of republican virtue and self-command.

Perhaps George Washington’s greatest sacrifice, his most selfless act, was performing this role assigned to him. He consented to become the marble man, the stiff figure on the one-dollar bill.

In return, he got a monument, a place on Mount Rushmore, a national holiday for his birthday, and a portrait in every school room.

But what was the cost? A Broadway musical, an HBO series, and, perhaps, a fully three-dimensional life capable of 21st century understanding.