By James M. Decker
February 18, 2019 is the day designated for the annual celebration of Presidents’ Day in America. Banks, stock exchanges, and many government offices and schools are closed in observation. As has been the case for decades, many commentators will use the day to honor all 45 Americans who have held the office of President of the United States. But today, I want to author a reminder that the federal holiday is still technically known as “Washington’s Birthday” and talk more about the man for which the day was created.
As schoolchildren, we all learn about George Washington. We come to know him as the father of our country. We know him as unfailingly honest. We learn about his brave leadership as a general, holding together a ragtag army that ultimately defeated a powerful empire. We know that he was our first president. We know that he’s consistently ranked as one of our greatest Presidents.
But how often do we stop to fully consider the life of George Washington? The Mount Rushmore National Memorial contains the images of four specific Presidents for a reason. According to the National Park Service, sculptor Gutzon Borglum chose George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt to represent the birth, growth, preservation, and development of the United States as a nation.
Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and acquired the Louisiana Purchase. Lincoln held together the country in its darkest hour, giving speeches like the Gettysburg Address before giving his own life to the cause of America. Theodore Roosevelt overcome personal adversity and was a bottomless well of powerful quotes and lessons on leadership. Washington’s story sometimes feels more abstract and general, by simply lauding him as the father of our country, but the specifics are worth celebrating.
George Washington was an incredibly wealthy man, even by today’s standards (estimated over $500 million when adjusted for inflation). He came from a prosperous family, but rather than resting on his laurels, he launched his family into an entirely new stratosphere of success, inheriting a sizeable estate called Mount Vernon, but ultimately becoming one of the largest landholders in America. Washington built a distillery that became the largest in America. He experimented with various brews of beer and whiskey. He grew a wide variety of crops, fruits, and vegetables at Mount Vernon and was the quintessential American entrepreneur, long before anyone ever thought to invent “entrepreneur” as a word.
Washington honesty and integrity has long been discussed. He was also a slave owner, but he ultimately saw the repugnancy of the institution and freed his slaves. He remains the only slave-owning President ever to do so.
Washington was something of a reluctant President and ran for a second term to quell tension between factions that were competing to replace him. In his farewell address. He abhorred political parties and remains the only President never to join one. In his farewell address, he said something that bears deep consideration in 2019:
“However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of George Washington is that he was a successful man who answered a call for public service, and then, after his time was complete, he quietly stepped back into his successful private life. Presidential leadership was never an end goal, nor was it something that changed the trajectory of his post-presidential life. He simply answered the call, then went back to his life’s work at Mount Vernon.
As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, and as we navigate our own opportunities for leadership and service, may we never forget the life of George Washington, nor minimize it into abstract generalities. Washington’s integrity, his willingness to serve for service’s sake with no desire to turn it into something bigger, and his disdain for political parties are all things we could learn from today.
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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker. Listen to our podcast interview with James here.