Today is not “President’s Day” or “Presidents Day” or anything like that, certainly not in Virginia. The official name of the Federal holiday is “Washington’s Birthday,” and the official name in Virginia is “George Washington Day.” Much of the country seems to have forgotten why this particular day really matters. As Virginians – and residents of Washington’s home county, no less – we, especially, must remember why we honor George Washington above all other Presidents.
Volumes have been written about George Washington and his character, and how fortunate we are that he was waiting in the wings when the Continental Congress needed a general. Let me give you one striking example of Washington’s devotion to our republican form of government.
In March of 1783, the Continental Army was in camp at Newburgh, just up the Hudson from New York. The war for independence was over: peace terms had been negotiated, and all that remained was for the Continental Congress to ratify the treaty with Great Britain. But the Army was still a force in being, and its officers were restless – they were owed back pay, and Congress had not kept its promise to award lifetime pensions.
In this atmosphere, an anonymous letter appeared, calling for the Army to send Congress an ultimatum: an invitation to mutiny and perhaps civil war. A second letter called for a meeting of the officers to discuss a plan of action. Washington immediately denounced the planned meeting as “irregular” and instead called for a meeting of his own for a few days later.
George Washington had a great love of the theater, and on this occasion he proved his mastery of the art of drama as a tool of leadership. Having requested that he be given a report on the proceedings, which suggested he would not attend, the General surprised the assembled officers by appearing, and asking to address them.
The officers were angry, and Washington’s prepared remarks counseling patience failed to move them. But then, he seized the moment. After searching his pockets for a letter from a member of Congress promising action on the officers’ demands, Washington paused, as though he were having difficulty reading. He fumbled in his pockets again, pulled out his reading glasses, and said “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.”
The effect was immediate and stunning. Reminded of the General’s own years of sacrifice, many of the men were in tears as he read the letter, and in that moment the conspiracy collapsed.
Imagine what might have happened, had somebody other than George Washington been in command – somebody with the temperament of Benedict Arnold, perhaps. Julius Caesar, Napoleon, countless other great men at the heads of armies have seized power throughout history. It is impossible to predict what might have happened had the incipient mutiny not been put down, or if Washington had chosen to lead a march on Philadelphia. We should all be grateful that we do not know the answer.
If any American, any President, deserves a day named after him, George Washington is the one.
Fairfax County Republican Committee