We all know the stories about George Washington. He chopped down a cherry tree, but did not lie about it. He wore wooden teeth and handwrote rules of civility. But cherry trees and wooden teeth do not capture the actual Washington. His greatest legacy lies in resisting the lure of political power.
The War for Independence presented several opportunities for Washington to usurp political power. In 1776 and 1777, Washington received virtually unlimited authority to wage war against the British, but promptly returned these extensive grants when the crises ended. After the war, many suggested Washington claim formal political power—perhaps even become America’s first king. Washington rejected the idea of becoming king as inappropriate and dishonorable. He fought the war for the sake of the American Republic, not for his personal self-aggrandizement.
The behavior of successful generals after a war has tremendous influence on the future of a country. History contains more stories of successful generals who become kings and dictators than of successful generals who become retired generals. But Washington refused to jeopardize the survival of the young republic.
In his farewell orders to his soldiers on November 2, 1783, he defended the new republic and admonished his men to cultivate the civil virtues necessary to its preservation. The republic is indispensible to citizens’ happiness, Washington explained, and the soldiers’ future happiness depends upon how they reentered their communities. The life of a private citizen was not ignoble. Civil society required a different set of virtues from those necessary in warfare: the virtues of “economy, prudence and industry” are as necessary in civil society as “valor, perseverance and enterprise” are on the battlefield. The adventurous among them may seek their fortunes out West. But no matter where his men settled, they ought to “prove themselves not less virtuous and useful as Citizens, than they have been persevering and victorious solders.”