George Washington stands among the greatest men of human history, and those in the same rank with him are very few. Whether measured by what he did, or what he was, or by the effect of his work upon the history of mankind, in every aspect he is entitled to the place he holds among the greatest of his race. Few men in all time have such a record of achievement. Still fewer can show at the end of a career so crowded with high deeds and memorable victories, a life so free from spot, a character so unselfish and so pure, a fame so void of doubtful points demanding either defense or explanation.
Eulogy of such a life is needless, but it is always important to recall and to freshly remember just what manner of man he was. In the first place he was physically a striking figure. He was very tall, powerfully made, with a strong, handsome face. He was remarkably muscular and powerful. As a boy he was a leader in all outdoor sports. As a young man he became a woodsman and hunter. Day after day he could tramp through the wilderness with his gun and his surveyor’s chain, and then sleep at night beneath the stars. This habit of vigorous bodily exercise he carried through life. His physical power and endurance counted for much in his success when he commanded his army, and when the heavy anxieties of general and president weighed upon his mind and heart.
He was an educated, but not a learned man. He read well and remembered what he read, but his life was, from the beginning, a life of action, and the world of men was his school. He was patient under defeat, capable of large combinations, a stubborn and often reckless fighter, a winner of battles, but much more, a conclusive winner in a long war of varying fortunes. He was, in addition, what very few great soldiers or commanders have ever been: a great constitutional statesman, able to lead a people along the paths of free government without obliging himself to play the part of the strong man, the usurper, or the savior of society.
He was a very silent man. Of no man of equal importance in the world’s history have we so few sayings of a personal kind. He was ready enough to talk or to write about the public duties which he had in hand, but he hardly ever talked of himself. Yet there can be no greater error than to suppose Washington cold and unfeeling because of his silence and reserve. Now and again he would break out, even as late as the presidency, into a gust of anger that would sweep everything before it. He was always reckless of personal danger, and had a fierce fighting spirit.
But as a rule these fiery impulses and strong passions were under the absolute control of an iron will, and they never clouded his judgment or warped his keen sense of justice. His pity always went out to the poor, the oppressed, or the unhappy, and he was all that was kind and gentle to those immediately about him. He gave dignity as well as victory to his country and his cause. He was, in truth, a “”character for after ages to admire.””
Adapted from Hero Tales from American History by Henry Cabot Lodge and Theodore Roosevelt, 2008
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