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The Greatness of George Washington

PUBLISHED: April 3, 2008

President George Washington was a weird guy. He was an anachronism in his own time, a stiff, shy man who really never fit in. His contemporaries were legendary intellectuals, but Washington had no interest or education in matters philosophical or scientific. As Charlottesville’s Thomas Jefferson put it, Washington had “neither copiousness of ideas nor fluency of words.”

There’s a famous story about Washington, related here by Michael Novak, author of Washington’s God:

Professor Morgan tells this probably apocryphal story: One evening during the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington’s friends were commenting on the reserved and remote manner Washington maintained, even among his closest friends. Gouverneur Morris countered that he could be as familiar with Washington as with any one else. Alexander Hamilton offered to provide a dinner if Morris would simply walk up to Washington, slap him on the back and greet him jovially. So, a few evenings later, Morris approached Washington, bowed, and placed his left hand on Washington’s shoulder and said, “My dear General, I am very happy to see you look so well.” Immediately, Washington reached up, removed Morris’s hand, stared icily at him, and stepped back in silence until Morris retreated into the crowd.

Washington was also a bad-ass – a giant of a man, a self-made hero, a man of virtue; in short, the very model of a modern major-general. This was the fundamental conundrum of Washington’s life: he worked hard to cultivate respect and adoration from Americans, but was so caught up in that persona that he couldn’t breach the wall he’d built between himself and the world.

All of this is by way of introduction to Gordon Wood’s “The Greatness of George Washington” from our Spring 1992 issue. Wood recounts Washington’s rise to power and the regret and uncertainty that he felt about each new post and every new responsibility thrust upon him. After his two presidential terms elapsed, Washington watched helplessly as partisan politics took over, and he at last found himself so far removed from society that he could no longer relate to his ostensible peers. It was, of course, Washington who had made partisan politics possible; “the great experiment”* allowed nations to be led by men of ideas, rather than high-minded war heros. The irony may well have escaped him.

* One of these days I’m going to chart the frequency with which the phrase “the great experiment” has appeared in VQR each year since its 1925 founding. When did we stop thinking of the United States as an experiment?

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