If there’s one iconic figure in American history whose legend approaches sainthood, it’s George Washington. From the “I cannot tell a lie” legend to his label as “the father of our country,” just about all that storytelling on the man is deserved.
We can thank Washington for a lot. He persisted against absolutely overwhelming odds with completely inadequate funding to win the Revolutionary War. Our commander in chief won only three decisive battles in eight years, but he so ground down the British with a war that seemed as if it might never end that the king and Parliament said the hell with it after Yorktown. We also can thank Washington for agreeing to take on the first presidency when he would rather have been farming at Mount Vernon. And we can especially thank him for stepping down from that presidency after two terms when he could easily have become the new monarch.
So it isn’t easy to write about Washington’s most remarkable talent—that he matured from being a flawed, ambitious and somewhat unethical young man into the honorable leader we all try to model today.
When historian Woody Holton first proposed to show us how a young Washington cheated some of his men out of western land, a couple of editors on staff started seeing red, and it wasn’t Washington’s militia uniform. “You want to write a story that says the father of our country was a crook?” asked one editor. Another said, “Let me get this straight—you want to bash America’s image of its greatest leader at a time when the nation is feeling a bit queasy about the course of events?”
Ah, history. That sort of disagreement is what makes it so interesting—the constant debate about how known facts should be interpreted. In the end, this is what the editors here perceived to be true: George Washington may be even greater than we thought, because he so transformed himself from an overly ambitious, unethical young man into a wise and virtuous older man. Now, that’s a model for your children. What Washington taught us is that people can change. They can rise up and improve themselves—dramatically so. They can become what they admire. They can become the president.