“The hour is fast approaching, on which the Honor and Success of this army, and the safety of our bleeding Country depend. Remember officers and Soldiers, that you are free men, fighting for the blessings of Liberty — that slavery will be your portion, and that of your posterity, if you do not acquit yourselves like men.”
Today is George Washington’s 284th birthday. I am reminded of a book that I read in 2009 that was especially meaningful: “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph J. Ellis, which I read via audio-book on my walks to and from work. Over the couple of weeks of “walking with George,” as I came to think of that time, I found that I formed a friendship with someone I had never met, who lived nearly 300 hundreds years before me.
The greatest gift of books is their ability to suspend our reality to allow other narratives to find a place in our hearts. They allow us to break through barriers of time and location to experience life through the eyes of another. We are living the story, feeling the joys, sorrows and identifying with the hopes and ambitions of the central characters.
Beginnings are marked by remarkable people doing remarkable deeds. As time goes by, these events take on a mythical aura while the individuals become the “stuff of legends.” We do not see them as mortal beings; rather, we elevate them to a reverential status that separates them from the ordinary. The Founding Fathers of the United States fit into this category. Benjamin Franklin was considered the wisest, Thomas Jefferson the intellectual, John Adams the scholar, and Alexander Hamilton the most brilliant; yet they all recognized George Washington as their superior. In 1775, he was unanimously elected by the Continental Congress to be commander-in-chief. He lost many battles, but continued, undaunted until the war was won.
Portraits of George Washington show him as distant, even intimidating and cold. Yet, as his life unfolded, I envisioned him at 11 when he lost his father, at 21 when he was appointed emissary for the governor of Virginia, and at 23 as a brave young officer who gained recognition for his valour in the French and Indian War. I imagined him years later at Valley Forge, where he shared the cold winter months with his men. As a president, I saw him exercise sound judgment as he led a fledgling nation. At the end, he embraced death with grace and equanimity.
I treasure those days when I “walked” with George Washington. He reminded me that one person, in the midst of conflict and complexity, can make a difference, be a force for good, an advocate for peaceful outcomes. His legacy will continue to inspire new generations.