George Washington: A Real Hero

by Derrick G. Jeter

George Washington was a man accustomed to danger. He was—almost mythically, but really—the embodiment of courage. As a young officer in the Virginia militia during the French and Indian War, fighting for the English crown, Washington and Daniel Boone tried to rally survivors from the routing defeat of General Edward Braddock’s expedition against Pittsburgh. In the attempt, Washington had two horses shot out from under him while a multitude of bullets tore through his coat and the creases of his pants. Twenty-six years later, in 1781, now fighting against the English, General Washington stood atop of the parapet at Yorktown to survey the battlefield. For fifteen minutes Washington exposed himself to British canon and shot with shrapnel and musket balls flying all about him.


But it was at the close of the war, and off of the battlefield, that Washington faced one of the most dangerous assignments of his military career. Since the inception of the Continental Army, funds to outfit the men had always been scarce. Officers led by General Horatio Gates, Washington’s deputy, gathered in Newburgh, New York, to discuss the possibility of insurrection against the infant government. Word came from Philadelphia that the United States government was broke and could not pay the Army. Alexander Hamilton warned General Washington that if the war continued under the present state of financial strain, the Army would have to forge the land and officers would not be recompensed for their expenses or promised moneys. The officers meeting at Newburgh were seeking justice—military justice to force the state capitals to open their already empty coffers. This was nothing short of why Americans sought independence in the first place—that free men could govern themselves based on laws without royal or military force. If the Army could hold the states’ legislatures hostage—and surely they could, but not without bloodshed—then the Republic would dissolve into despotism.


The Newburgh meeting was held on March 17, 1783, in a hall called the Temple. General Washington made his appearance, unexpectedly. He addressed a corps of officers who were not happy to see him. Angry, they didn’t believe he represented their interest. His speech was not well received . . . until the very end.


Washington was, also, from the beginning of the American republic, the embodiment of America herself. He led the Continental Army for eight years (1775–1783), mostly through defeat, to one glorious victory at Yorktown and independence. He shepherded a contentious Constitutional Convention, as the presiding officer, in developing the document that birthed the American republic. And he served as the first president, and the only president elected unanimously—twice (1789 and 1793). Expressing a desire to retire to his “vine and fig tree” at Mt. Vernon, even before he began his second term, Washington approached Alexander Hamilton, his Secretary of Treasury, in February 1796 about writing a valedictorian document. Washington was approaching his mid-sixties and he was simply tired and worn out. But additional motivation to retire came from the deep wounds received by critical newspaper editors who accused him of setting up a quasi-monarchy. In some corners of the country he was called “George IV” in succession of the not so previously defeated king George III. By retiring Washington wanted to silence the wagging tongues of monarchy and state unequivocally that the office outlives the man. His retirement would also reflect the well known Roman history of the great general/statesman Cincinnatus who voluntarily surrendered power to return to his farm. (Washington’s retirement set precedent for all presidents to willingly serve only two terms, until Franklin Delano Roosevelt broke with tradition in 1940 by running for and winning a third term. The presidency was later restricted to two four-year terms in 1951 with passage of the Twenty-second Amendment.)


Washington left Philadelphia, and the presidency, on March 4, 1797. Retiring to his “vine and fig” at Mt. Vernon he set upon a system of crop rotations and tending to his trees until his death on December 14, 1799.


How easy it is to forget our heroes; those who really were heroes. So on this, George Washington’s birthday I honor him as the hero he really was. Thank you Mr. President for what you gave our country. We’re not likely to see your kind again.