(This is Part 2 of a three-part series on President George Washington. Read Part 1 here.)
With the birthday of George Washington last week, I began to highlight my Top 10 reasons why I wish he were still alive. I explained in the first three points why:
10) Washington was a role model for many, even as a youth.
9) Washington epitomized courage.
8) Washington wasn’t afraid of public opinion or challenging the status quo.
7) Washington was a man of integrity and character, and yet just as human as the rest of us.
6) Washington was a first-class servant leader who walked what he talked. He believed so firmly in our newly founded but poor republic that he took no pay for his service during the Revolutionary War (besides official expenses). And after eight long years of leading the war and retiring to his peaceful estate at Mt. Vernon, he re-enlisted rather than stay retired. It is amazingly commendable – if not astonishing – that Washington came out of military retirement to serve two terms as president. He even had to borrow money to pay off debts and travel to his own inauguration.
5) Washington didn’t allow personal obstacles to hinder his service to God, country and his family. Among other sicknesses, Fox News just reported that, beginning at the age of 17, Washington suffered multiple malaria attacks throughout his life. He even had a case of smallpox and dysentery and struggled with depression and hearing loss.
In 1779, during the middle of the Revolutionary War, Washington “feared for his survival,” not from bullets but an abscess of the tonsils. And after all, he had been through, at 57 years old with his war-torn body and reportedly a single real tooth in his mouth, Washington left behind the comfort of his estate on the edge of the Potomac River and traveled eight days to New York, where he was sworn in as president.
4) Washington was a devoted family man. In 1759, at 27 years of age, Washington married widow Martha Dandridge Custis. Though Martha and George had no children, he adopted her daughter and son from her former marriage. They also provided personal and financial support to nephews, nieces and other extended family members.
If it’s true that behind every great man is a great woman (and it is, as proof with my wife, Gena, who does more for me and others than the world will ever know), then Washington’s wife, Martha, is definitely to be credited for part of the power behind the myth of the Father of our Nation. For example, for each of the eight years of the Revolutionary War, Martha came to Washington’s winter encampments (including Valley Forge) to boost his morale as well as the other officers.
No doubt Martha’s initial struggle to support Washington’s departure as president must have had some emotional connection to finally having him home at Mt. Vernon after his service in the Continental and Constitutional Congresses, and his eight years of leading the war. Though Martha refused to attend his inauguration, she stood by her man, living with him at the temporary U.S. capitals of New York and Philadelphia.
Although Martha and George had a strong relationship, there’s no doubt he had a lifelong love interest in the beautiful and intellectually astute Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend, George William Fairfax, whom he had met when he was just 16 years of age. Sally’s father would never allow her to marry someone other than from a wealthy, upper class family like hers, and Washington didn’t fit the bill.
Mt. Vernon historians noted how Sally “remained ever faithful to her marriage” and yet “a good friend of Washington and his wife Martha.” In 1773, she moved with her husband to England, where he died in 1787. In 1798, just a year before Washington’s death, he wrote Sally, urging her to return to Virginia. He added that nothing could “eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.” Sally never returned and died alone in England in 1811.
No man is perfect, and that included George Washington. He confessed: “We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals.” Remembering that was likely the key to his humility, service and mercy to others. Maybe his own struggle to receive the Eucharist (Communion) when he attended the Anglican Church was born from his wrestling with his own humanity and possibly even the human toll that incurred when leading the war.
George was married to Martha for roughly 40 years. Just prior to her own death in 1802, Martha destroyed nearly all of Washington’s letters to her, though three did survive.
(Next week I will finish my Top 10 and discuss how some today view Washington as yesteryear’s presidential billionaire mogul, as well as reveal my No. 1 reason why I wish he were still alive to serve as a model and help for us all. For more on the monumental figure of George Washington, I recommend the amazing book, “Sacred Fire,” by Peter Lillback and Jerry Newcombe.)