While many have come to celebrate the third Monday in February as President’s Day, in reality, this day was originally set apart to celebrate only one president— George Washington.
According to Dr. Matthew Spalding, Vice President of Washington Operations and Dean of the Van Andel Graduate School of Government in Washington, D.C., the tradition of celebrating Washington’s birthday began in 1870 and was written into law in 1968. The language in the law still calls the holiday “Washington’s Birthday” not “President’s Day.”
Therefore, in honor of George Washington, here are 5 passages from the first president sure to re-inspire awe for American founding principles.
Washington’s Newburgh Address: March 15, 1783
Without George Washington’s indispensable leadership and practical wisdom there would have been no independence, no Constitutional Convention, and no model for a Constitutional executive. As Dr. Spalding explains, Washington was pivotal to every stage of the American founding.
Take for instance Washington’s leadership during the Revolutionary War. For eight years he led the Continental Army through treacherous conditions, with few supplies against the greatest army in the world. No one else could have held such a ragtag army together for so long.
Several months before the end of the Revolutionary War many officers in the Continental Army were frustrated with Congress’ delay in providing back pay and reimbursements to the army. Some officers developed a plot to use the military in order to force Congress to provide the money. Some politicians backed the plan and Alexander Hamilton even suggested to Washington that he lead the charge.
Washington flatly refused and instead called his officers together in Newburgh, New York. There he gave a nine-page speech where he sympathized with the officers’ concerns, but roundly condemned their methods. He stated:
“While I give you these assurances, and pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner, to exert whatever ability I am possessed of, in your favor—let me entreat you, Gentlemen, on your part, not to take any measures, which, viewed in the calm light of reason, will lessen the dignity, & sully the glory you have hitherto maintained—let me request you to rely on the plighted faith of your Country, and place a full confidence in the purity of the intentions of Congress…
And let me conjure you, in the name of our common Country--as you value your own sacred honor—as you respect the rights of humanity, & as you regard the Military & national character of America, to express your utmost horror & detestation of the Man who wishes, under any specious pretences, to overturn the liberties of our Country, & who wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord, & deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”
To conclude Washington read a letter from Congress to the officers, but before doing so he drew out of his pocket a pair of glasses that he had never before worn in public. He 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." Several of the officers were so ashamed of their actions that they were reduced to tears. The conspiracy died that night.
Washington’s Inaugural Address: April 30, 1789
It is because of Washington’s influence that so many of the day’s esteemed statesmen were willing to meet in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention. It was also his influence that kept the Convention civil despite the presence of many strong personalities, hot tempers, and contentious issues.
As President of the Convention, Washington did not say much during the debates, but his influence was heavily felt behind the scenes. As James Monroe once said to Thomas Jefferson, "his influence carried this government."
Though primarily a man of action, Washington was also a man of word and deep thought. In fact, Hillsdale in DC recently acquired Washington’s full set of writing, speeches, and correspondence. The collection is massive— taking up several bookcases. Reading through Washington’s writings elucidates his commitment to establishing a self-governing constitutional republic.
Washington shared his vision for the nation in his First Inaugural Address. This address describes a view of liberty that is undergirded by the natural law. In Washington’s view, freedom is always linked with duty, and liberty is always linked with order. Washington said,
“I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”
George Washington’s First State of the Union: January 8, 1790
According to Dr. Spalding, George Washington was governed by “immutable principles of private morality” or what has come to be known as character. Washington believed that character had implications for politics, especially in a Republican government.
In his chapter of Patriot Sage: George Washington and the American Political Tradition, Dr. Spalding writes, “Just as the individual government of the self requires rules and good habits of behavior, so popular self-government requires laws and good habits of citizenship. Washington set out to create a nation of both.”
Washington often spoke and wrote about the importance of education and knowledge in character formation. In his first address to Congress in 1790 Washington drew out this connection between education and morality. Washington stated:
"Nor am I less persuaded, that you will agree with me in opinion, that there is nothing, which can better deserve your patronage, than the promotion of Science and Literature. Knowledge is in every Country the surest basis of public happiness. In one, in which the measures of Government receive their impression so immediately from the sense of the Community as in ours, it is proportionally essential.
To the security of a free Constitution it contributes in various ways: By convincing those, who are entrusted with the public administration, that every valuable end of Government is best answered by the enlightened confidence of the people: And by teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights; to discern and provide against invasions of them; to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority; between burthens proceeding from a disregard to their convenience and those resulting from the inevitable exigencies of Society; to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last, and uniting a speedy, but temperate vigilance against encroachments, with an inviolable respect to the laws."
Washington’s Thanksgiving Proclamation: October 3, 1789
In Alexander Hamilton’s first Federalist Paper he remarked that it has been left to the United States to determine whether societies of men are capable of establishing government by reflection and choice, or whether men must rely on accident and force. Washington seems to give an answer to this question in his Thanksgiving proclamation when he states that God himself gave the United States the opportunity to establish their own form of government. He said,
“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
After thanking God for the chance to form their own government, Washington then thanked God for directing the Founders to establish a constitutional government that protected civil and religious liberty. The trick it seems isn’t just being able to form a government, but being able to form a good government.
“That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.”
Washington’s Farewell Address: September 19, 1796
Washington was an ambitious man, but his character and desire to see a lasting Constitutional republic caused him to do something almost no other ruler has ever done before— give up power. Not only did Washington refuse kingship twice and resign his military commission at the end of the war, but he also retired from office after only two terms as president.
It is because of Washington’s example that America has had more than 200 years of the peaceful transfer of power—the jewel of our republic.
Dr. Spalding argues that Washington’s Farewell Address ranks with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution among the greatest documents of the American Founding. The Address is still so highly revered that the Senate maintains a tradition to this day of reading it out loud annually on or near Washington's birthday.
Though much of the Address focuses on foreign affairs it also offers important advice about the character of the American political system.
In the address Washington warns America to guard the Constitution because it is the Constitution that limits government and defends rights and liberties. He also warns the people to guard against political passions and partisanship. Lastly, Washington encourages public virtue and points to religion and morality as its source.
Perhaps most powerful in the Address is Washington’s endorsement of our great experiment and his exhortation to cling to unity and the Constitution. He wrote:
“To the efficacy and permanency of your Union, a government for the whole is indispensable...Sensible of this momentous truth, you have improved upon your first essay, by the adoption of a constitution of government better calculated than your former for an intimate union, and for the efficacious management of your common concerns.
This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.
The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government.”
Just as Washington’s legacy cannot be overstated, neither can the importance of his example for our country today. After decades of being led by self-serving politicians, the American people could use a reminder of what true statesmanship looks like.
Washington’s life and legacy serve to remind America of what the human mind and the human will are capable of. Washington won an impossible war and conducted an impossible experiment— all to form a self-governing nation. The best way we can honor his legacy is to once again become a nation worthy of self-government and liberty.