Presidents’ Day Post: The Legacy of George Washington

Hello, PPFA readers. It’s another Presidents’ Day. On past Presidents’ Days, I’ve shared with you my presidential rankings and some presidents’ last words. Today, however, I thought I’d write about the president that inspired the holiday in the first place. Tomorrow, February 22, will mark 290 years since George Washington was born.

Fortunately for my considerably rare free time, I’ve given his importance a great deal of thought already. He was #14 in my book, “Who Made the West: A Ranking of the 30 Most Influential Figures in Western History.” So, I thought for today, I’d share with you what I had to say about his importance. I’ll skip over his biography and just share with you the analysis at the end of the chapter. If you want to read about the life of Washington and the other people who made the list, please buy the book!

Enjoy! And happy Presidents’ Day.

Aside from German-born Albert Einstein, no American will be ranked higher on this list. That’s because no American is as crucial to the nation’s existence.

One of the rare unflattering legacies of George Washington was that he was the intellectual inferior of the other great founding fathers. Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton were authors, inventors, scientists, philosophers, musicians, architects, and fierce intellectuals. When reading early American history, one gets the impression that these were the nerds of the revolution and Washington the jock.

It’s not a bad analogy. During the revolutionary period and debate over the new governments, it’s the Adamses and Hamiltons who fueled the fire of discourse. When generating our founding documents and ideals, the great well-read minds of the revolution considered ancient Greco-Roman ideas, modern Enlightenment ones, and everything in between. These founding fathers were among the most learned persons in the world — and they were eager to prove it. Meanwhile, the taciturn Washington almost always kept to himself, only weighing in on the most pressing of issues. Yet, when he did speak, everyone listened.[1]

Still, he earned everyone’s respect by more than just the infrequency of his words. He may not have been a man of philosophy, but he was a man of action. While he wasn’t as philosophically brilliant or well-read as other founding fathers, perhaps the fact that there were so many of those types made those men just a tad redundant. Washington was uniquely qualified to lead the nation during war, legitimize the Constitutional Convention, and then run the new government created by it. At each of these pivotal stages, he calmly exercised responsibilities that would have overwhelmed most of his colleagues. These same brilliant founding fathers recognized his greatness and created an entire branch of government for the skills he embodied. Of all the great early Americans, no one was as indispensable.

Furthermore, he modeled the presidency for all his successors. A cabinet is not in the Constitution, but he made it the norm. On multiple occasions he exercised his role as commander-in-chief. His self-imposed two-term limit has only once been surpassed, even though such a restriction wasn’t law until 1951.[2]

His effect on America beyond dispute, the only argument to make against Washington’s place on a list of influential Westerners is that his effects might be localized to just America. Indeed, unlike other Americans on this list, he didn’t advance science for the planet (as did Pincus), he wasn’t an international figure (as was Jefferson), he wasn’t a visionary who revolutionized daily life (as was Ford), and he didn’t invent anything that was used outside of the country (as did Edison). Should we then argue that his influence was on America and America only?

We should not. The American Revolution was a turning point not just for American history, but world history as well. It’s a line of demarcation between the old regimes of the Western world and the republican democracies that were about to replace them. It’s after the successful Revolutionary War that other colonies in the Americas steadily declared their own independence and become countries. It’s after the successful implementation of the Constitution where liberating constitutions sprang up across the West. If the American War of Independence or its subsequent experiment with government were failures, it’s unclear when, or if, that turning point would have happened. The failure of Washington in the war or early republic would have seriously threatened the American chances in both. The birth of modern Western government hinges upon his success.

Similarly, his decision to step down from office is one of humility’s most consequential moments. Some expected he could have been King George I of the United States. Before Washington, Western leaders almost without exception left their position in one of two ways — they were killed by someone or had a natural death. In either case, they went out flat on their back. Washington not only walked out, but he set the precedent that American commanders-in-chief should not seek to usurp power or get elected in perpetuity. Since the great George Washington didn’t overstay his welcome, nearly every president after him emulated that decision. Further, after Washington, the concept of term limits moved from ancient idealism to something practiced throughout the world. Though he didn’t have to, he showed that a leader wasn’t superior to the people — he was one of them.

Consider how many revolutions in other parts of the world eventually experienced a new tyrant rise to power. It was the far more likely scenario. Even the enlightened Napoleon (#16) across the Atlantic, just a few years after Washington’s presidency, showed what usually happens — when a talented general’s popularity goes to his head, so does a crown.

And yet, without strong and quality leaders, revolutions cannot succeed in the first place. George Washington had the perfect combination of strength and selflessness necessary for the successful start of the United States. He had the exact amount of ambition required to rise to his position, but not so much ambition that he took advantage of it. As impressive as traversing the Delaware was, walking this tightrope was his greatest crossing.

In the long term, America’s importance grew with time. In the nineteenth century, the United States acted as a counterbalance to the British Empire in North America. In World War I, it broke a stalemate and helped democracy turn back the autocratic Central Powers. In World War II, it saved Europe and the Pacific from the Third Reich and Japanese Empire. The U.S. then led Western capitalism in the Cold War against the communist Eastern bloc. Countless technological and scientific breakthroughs have occurred in its many universities, labs, and spaceships. Without the United States, we probably have a dramatically different modern period. Without George Washington, we probably don’t have the United States.

Thus, for his essential role in creating this important country and serving as the model figure in modern government’s transformation, George Washington is the 14th most influential figure in Western history.


[1] Therein lies an advantage of rarely speaking, a talent of mine at social gatherings.

[2] Franklin D. Roosevelt successfully won a third and fourth term in the 1940s. Ulysses S. Grant, elected in 1868 and 1872, left the job after two complete terms, but he attempted another run in 1880, ultimately losing the Republican Primary. That’s the list.

Today’s featured image was made possible by W Kennedy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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