Historian James Flexner described George Washington as the “Indispensable Man.” By any measure, George Washington was a great man, a brilliant general, and a compelling first president. Many Americans can, and should, learn from the life and works of President Washington. From his writings, there are three particularly important lessons for modern Americans to grasp.
First, George Washington was a humble man. Quite unlike most politicians today, George Washington had no political ambitions. Indeed, shortly after he submitted his resignation to Congress and retired from his position as commander in chief after the Revolutionary War, he wrote the following in a letter to Marquis de Lafayette on February 1, 1784. “I am become a private citizen on the banks of the Potomac, and under the shadow of my own Vine and my own Fig tree, free from the bustle of a camp and the busy scenes of public life, I am solacing myself with those tranquil enjoyments…. Envious of none, I am determined to be pleased with all and this my dear friend, being the order for my march, I will move gently down the stream of life, until I sleep with my Fathers.”
Clearly, Washington was quite happy to enjoy retirement at his Mount Vernon residence. Having visited Mount Vernon myself, I can see why. Seated in the forest, looking over the Potomac River, it is a picturesque place filled with peace and beauty. Yet, little did he know, five year later he would be summoned back for a life of public service, having been unanimously elected the first president of the United States.
After Washington became president, in May of 1789 he wrote the following in a letter to the United Baptist Churches of Virginia. “I retired at the conclusion of the war, with an idea that my country could have no further occasion for my services, and with the intention of never entering again into public life: But when the exigence of my country seemed to require me once more to engage in public affairs, an honest conviction of duty superseded my former resolution, and became my apology for deviating from the happy plan which I had adopted.”
Washington seemed to approach public life, not out of a desire for self-promotion, but out of a reluctant recognition of the duty he owed his country. He could have been president for life, but he voluntarily chose to run for only two terms. For a man viewed as being indispensable, he truly was quite humble.
Humility is often characterized by modern society as weakness. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. God Himself, perfectly displayed the virtue of humility. Philippians 2:6-8 says that Jesus Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, but taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (ESV)
C.J. Mahaney, in his book Humility: True Greatness, explains why humility is so important. “Contrary to popular and false belief, it’s not ‘those who help themselves’ whom God helps; it’s those who humble themselves.” I am sure we all wish our politicians would be more humble. They should follow the example of humility displayed by President Washington, and we should too.
Second, Washington acknowledged the divine providence of God in the life of the nascent United States. In his first inaugural address, Washington said, “it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that his benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States… No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States.”
The words are made more profound with the realization that this was his first official act as President of the United States. Indeed, the very first thing Washington did as President was to ask God to bless and guide the United States.
Proverbs 3:6 exhorts us to pray for God’s guidance in all we do. “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (ESV) Let us follow Washington’s example and do the same.
Third, President Washington believed that virtue begets happiness. Many people view virtue and happiness as distinct, or even opposed to one another. In our modern minds, we sometimes believe that virtue consists only of solemn devotion, stoicism, and a boring, stale life. It’s an old saying that people would rather party in hell than play harps in heaven. Our fallen human nature seems to incline us to think of holiness as mundane. Yet, Washington realized that this characterization of virtue is untrue.
In his first inaugural address, Washington said, “I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness…. Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which heaven itself has ordained.”
Washington affirms the correlation between virtue and happiness. Indeed, it is when we are living up to our moral standards that we can have peace and joy. The Apostle Paul, in Romans 8:6, writes, “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Yes, there are many things that we should learn from George Washington’s life. We should strive to emulate his humility, his appeal for the help of God, and his conviction that virtue indeed leads to happiness. May our lives reflect these qualities that President Washington expressed.