In 1789, Americans unanimously elected George Washington as their first President. Since then, many presidents have come and gone; yet, Washington holds the honor of being the only president in the history of the United States to garner such loyalty and affection from the American public. Washington was an admirable man because of his excellent leadership qualities; but another outstanding quality of this great leader, often overlooked, was humility. Even at the pinnacle of his power, Washington maintained a humble stance towards his role as the President of the United States of America. As President, he never wavered from assuming the role of a public servant over that of a mighty ruler – a position that most modern presidents have often ignored.
Washington did not seek the presidency himself but accepted the honor as a service to his country. In his First Inaugural Address, Washington noted that, “I was summoned by my Country, whose voice I can never hear but with veneration and love.” As such, the first President reflected a Statesman more than reflecting a Politician. Perhaps the most significant difference between a “statesman” and a politician is that the former wished to serve his country; the latter is more interested in serving himself at the expense of the country. Indeed, even when the opportunity presented itself, Washington was quick to decline from accepting “any share in the personal emoluments” or monetary gains for himself. For Washington, the opportunity to preside over the nation presented the chance to serve Americans instead of depriving them of their liberties.
To be sure, Washington had many flaws; but for the new Americans, his humbleness overshadowed any discrepancies he possessed. Indeed, his humility was as much, perhaps even more so, a part of his greatness. For example, he admitted that he had received “inferior endowments from nature” and was quite “unpracti[s]ed in the duties of civil administration.” Incredibly, even after winning the Revolutionary War against the greatest world power at the time, Britain, Washington remained “peculiarly conscious” of his many “deficiencies.”
Again, in his Second Inaugural Address, Washington maintained the same humility that was the hallmark of this great man. Instead of a flowery speech, he was succinct and stated that if he ever “violated willingly or knowingly the injunctions” of the Constitution during his term that “(besides incurring constitutional punishment)” he should “be subject[ed] to the upbraidings of all who are now witnesses of the present solemn ceremony.” Washington remained steadfastly faithful to the vision of the American Revolution throughout his presidency.
Of all American presidents, Washington most assuredly had the perfect opportunity to abuse his presidential authority. Yet, instead of getting intoxicated with power and destroying the nation, he maintained his humbleness throughout his term. Even when a deep political cleavage became apparent in his administration, Washington maintained a neutral position on most matters. His vision was always to keep Americans united in the principles of liberty. He managed to perform the arduous task of remaining above political factions by sheer determination and humility. Perhaps it was easy for Washington to do so because instead of being a duplicitous character, he was naturally humble in his personal and public life. For Washington, leading the country always remained an opportunity to promote the idea of liberty and not a chance to generate wealth for his own pocket.
Today, Washington remains mostly forgotten, or worse, criticized by those who feel the founding principles need to be reformed. Instead of trying to change the fundamental concepts of the nation, principles that once heralded the United States as a superpower, it might be more helpful for Americans to consider the vision provided by those who fought and died for our liberties. For those seeking to lead the United States today, a lesson in humility from George Washington would make a great start in uniting the nation in hope of moving forward.
Photo Credit: OZinOH (Creative Commons)