Most of us know the story about George Washington, who at the age of six, was given a new hatchet and proceeded to chop up everything in sight. This included his dad’s favorite, young, English cherry tree. When George’s father asked if he knew who had killed the tree, young George bravely fessed up.
You’ve probably also heard about Washington’s incredibly dramatic crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776. His carefully prepared surprise attack on approximately 1400 Hessian soldiers (German mercenaries) in and around Trenton, New Jersey took place on an absolutely miserable night. Washington and his soldiers endured freezing temperatures and a Nor’easter that lashed them with sleet and snow as they crossed the ice-choked river. Then the troops marched 10 miles to Trenton to arrive for the successful pre-dawn attack. It was the first real military victory for the Colonial Army, which was in desperate need of one.
But what is more remarkable than Washington’s victory at Trenton is the fact that at least twice, he single-handedly saved the revolution. Following the battle at Trenton, many soldiers were ready to leave the army because their enlistments were up. They were done. They had experienced tremendous hardships, sacrificed for the colonies, and were prepared to return to civilian life.
Washington urgently appealed to his men to step forward and stand with him in this noble cause. At first, they hesitated, but then nearly all of the soldiers pledged their commitment. Washington’s incredible leadership and vision had earned their trust, respect and allegiance. That day, he kept the army in tact and saved the Revolution.
At another crucial juncture, Washington again prevented his vision for the United States from crumbling. In March 1783 there was a conspiratorial movement among many officers. These leaders were exhausted, frustrated and had not been paid, nor received adequate recognition for their years of service and sacrifice. Washington’s powerful presence and his personal appeal to the officers caused them to end the conspiracy and reaffirm their commitment to the cause. As Washington biographer James Thomas Flexner wrote: “Washington had saved the United States from tyranny and discord.” Thomas Jefferson commented, “The moderation and virtue of a single character probably prevented this Revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of the liberty it was intended to establish.”
Unsurprisingly, Washington also maintained a vision for the type of leader he was destined to become. In fact he identified four honorable roles, including characters from history and literature, and he modeled his behavior after them. One was a virtuous Roman from a Joseph Addison tragedy written in 1712. Another was Cincinnatus, the Roman farmer who led the army that saved Rome before declining the position of “dictator” offered by the senate and returning to his farm.
Washington also saw himself in The Patriot King, a role from writer Henry Saint-John, Viscount Bolingbroke. The protagonist always focused on the people’s welfare. His fourth model was that of a father (and all of the admirable leadership traits associated with that). These four righteous roles helped serve as a kind of personal mission statement for Washington.
Finally, much of Washington’s leadership success can be attributed to the great respect he showed for every individual – no matter their standing or position. As a youngster, Washington read and internalized the 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, a work composed by French Jesuits in 1595. His religious convictions also caused him to, in his words, “walk a straight line.”
There are countless stories about Washington’s leadership, and the dignity and respect he afforded others. This included ordering soldiers who were foraging for food and supplies during the war to show respect for all citizens – even when by using strength and intimidation, they were likely to make a larger haul.
But one story that truly reveals George Washington’s character is how he treated enemy combatants. After Washington’s victory at Trenton, his troops captured 900 Hessian mercenaries. These men wrote letters detailing the kindness with which they had been treated by the Colonial Army and militias. And because they were treated so well, they behaved well. These captured mercenaries were told that they would be marched by the Pennsylvania militia across the state to the Maryland border. From there, they were instructed to march through Maryland and on to Virginia on to meet other militia. They would be unaccompanied. They would march alone. And they did all arrive at their destination. That’s pretty amazing.
Roughly one in four German soldiers who came to fight in the Revolution became a part of the Revolution – and decided to stay in this country. Washington’s decision to not seek revenge against enemy soldiers, but to do an honorable thing and treat combatants with respect, turned them into citizens and eventually friends and neighbors.
The more you read about George Washington, the more you realize, he truly was the Father of our country. And if you’re passionate about leadership, you won’t find a better example.
Have a Great Independence Day!