Reading: The Character of the General

Washington was a human being, and the cherry tree story was a myth. But behind the myths lies a man of profound character.

I am not sure I could or should emulate Washington in detail, but his character provides an outline, a rough template, that offers a lot to emulate.

The more time that passes since reading the book, though, the more I find that its examination of Washington, his life, and his character moves me. By bringing the General down from his marble pedestal, Ron Chernow has done us all a great service: he has shown us that greatness is less bestowed than it is found, less innate than it is built. It is a mantle that is not assumed: it is rather, conferred by others after long and careful evaluation.

And, perhaps most important, if the great are imperfect, then it is within the grasp of all who are imperfect to be great. The lesson Chernow teaches us, then, is that the Founding Fathers did more than democratize power: they democratized prestige, importance, and social standing, stealing it from the privileged, the noble-born, and the royal and setting it in the town square for anyone to earn.

Verily, we need to look no further than Washington’s forty-fourth successor to witness that there is a downside to the democratization of prestige. Yet one does not have to look for long to find among the heirs of George III evidence that hereditary monarchy is little better – and arguably worse – at selecting heads of state than our own system.

But if there is a failing in our system, it begins with us. In a democracy it is we who choose the great. Our failing is in holding the good men and women who would hold office to a standard even George Washington could not match, leaving us only with Potemkin heroes and abject scoundrels from which to choose our leaders.

Chernow’s lesson is, thus, most important when understood in this context. Do not demand or expect perfection from your leaders. Demand an expect only that they are good and trying to be better. Such was George Washington, and, I daresay, such was the lot of every man and woman who we today revere as Great Americans.