Cancel—as in noisily toppling George Washington’s statue and striking his name off of buildings? In 2020, one group demanded the removal of his statue from the campus of the University of Washington. Another outfit called for displacing, renaming, or “recontextualizing” the Washington Monument, the 74,000-ton obelisk on the Mall of the nation’s capital. In June 2020, a crowd of protesters in Portland, Ore., lit a fire on the head of a statue of Washington before pulling it to the ground. Spraypainted on this figure were such words as “Genocidal Colonist,” “You’re on native lands,” “BLM,” “1619,” and “Big Floyd.” Some observers have wondered whether the name of Washington & Lee University will eventually be reduced to an ampersand.
The tendency of many today is to embrace with a vengeance Mark Antony’s lines from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar:
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones…
Consequently, George Washington’s sins of omission and commission have been much in the news. By no means are all these criticisms without merit. Both scholars and journalists have thoroughly analyzed Washington’s opinions and practices as a slaveholder. To a significant degree, readers have benefited from balanced historical examinations of the Founders’ lives. For Christians in particular—believers in the doctrine of original sin—demythologization can hold few surprises.
In fact, well before the spectacular events of 2020, George Washington was quietly being canceled. Even worse than the attention paid by raucous crowds or by bureaucratic list makers may be the societal neglect that has led to popular ignorance. Neither lawless mobs nor woke officials have been primarily responsible for this diminishment.
Rather, Americans at large, indifferent and amnesic, have abandoned their own patrimony. Washington’s once-vital historical existence has suffered a withering away brought about by inanition. If not outright cancellation, then call what has happened to our first president an occlusion or a slow devaluation.
Young people know little about Washington’s achievements. In a recent survey, only 35% of undergraduate students could identify the commander of American forces at Yorktown. Public schools have removed Washington’s portrait from classroom walls, and history textbooks devote as little as 10% of the coverage to Washington that they incorporated 60 years ago.
His birthday celebration has passed from the scene, and Presidents’ Day is no substitute for what once was. Senior citizens recall Washington’s Birthday parades they witnessed as children and describe school assemblies focused on Washington’s virtues as human being, commander-in-chief, and president.
Historic homes, including Mount Vernon, have seen declines in numbers of visitors, and the percentage of students studying American history in college has dwindled dramatically. The Father of Our Country is no longer, in the words of Light-Horse Harry Lee’s encomium, first in the hearts of his countrymen. He is scarcely in their minds at all.
This decline in stature is not only ironic; it’s also reflective of a sour ingratitude. As his biographer Joseph Ellis has pointed out, Washington led the Continental Army to victory and achieved American independence. Then he oversaw the establishment of a new nation during its most fragile period of development. Thus he was truly first in war and first in peace.
Whether Washington’s eclipse is effected by sudden cancellation or by the steady withdrawal of interest and notice, the result is the same: not merely the casting aside of a single personage but also the loss of this figure’s positive impact on countless others.
On Presidents’ Day, it behooves us to pause to remember, indeed to work against the grain and to engage in an exercise that is countercultural. Although it may be hidden for a time, the evil that men and women participate in often has repercussions for many years afterward, and we should not avert our eyes. By the same token, we should not overlook what is valuable in their lives, even if recovering the good requires us to dig down and disinter what has lain buried beside the bones.
Consider the story of a prominent beneficiary of Washington’s legacy, one of the finest American leaders of the 20th century: General George C. Marshall. His biography illuminates what could be lost with the evisceration of Washington as exemplar. Indeed, Marshall’s biographers uniformly recognize him as a dedicated follower of Washington and of the virtues he embodied. When Harvard University conferred an honorary degree on Marshall on June 5, 1947—the occasion of his speech announcing the European Recovery Program—the citation described him as “a soldier and statesman whose ability and character brook only one comparison in the history of the nation.”
Growing up in Uniontown, Penn., close to some of Washington’s major exploits as a young military officer, Marshall made a thorough study of Washington’s deeds and character. From his illustrious predecessor, Marshall learned not only the way to carry himself—maintaining an austere demeanor—but also the meaning and worth of the civil-military relationship in a republic.
George Washington knew power, which he employed as an aggressive commander, a fighting revolutionary. Therefore the first trait we are likely to associate with him might not be the ancient Christian virtue of patience. But this moral habit is a key to his success as both soldier and statesman. In his professional career, we perceive the effectiveness of all three forms of patience: waiting, perseverance, and handing over. In order for Washington to realize his goals, he first had to restrain his impetuous nature. He could not let his fiery temperament, his occasional recklessness, take root in his will. Like his near-contemporary, the Englishman Samuel Johnson, he had to reject the notion that humans are perforce governed by a “ruling passion” they cannot control.
Washington learned self-mastery. The virtue of temperance helped make him an outstanding leader. By controlling his ego, he was able to let go, thereby enabling his fellow citizens to flourish. The republican turn in his life meant that he deemed yielding command of greater value than clinging to power. Mindful of the glaring exception of slaveholding, we can still affirm that he understood that relinquishment is a prerequisite of freedom.
Washington was an immensely brave man. Courage is the form, the skeleton, of all the virtues; it enables them to stand up and be relied upon when put to the test. It has been described as the mean between cowardice and rashness. This virtue, fortitude, he possessed to a striking degree. Richard Brookhiser states that at Yorktown in 1781, as Washington was inspecting the field of battle, one of his aides expressed concern that his commander-in-chief was too exposed to the enemy’s fire: “Had you not better step a little back?” Washington replied: “Colonel Cobb, if you are afraid, you have liberty to step back.” Both Brookhiser and Ron Chernow see bravery, too, in Washington’s decision in his will—probably over the objections of his legatees—to go beyond what most of his peers were willing to do and to free all his slaves following the death of his wife, Martha.
What we discern in individuals of the stature of George Washington and George Marshall is a rare devotion to duty over interest or desire. The former did not want to be president; he wished only to retire to Mount Vernon, to tend to his various enterprises, and to live out his life “under his own vine and fig tree.” Duty is an unnatural virtue. We are not naturally inclined to perform it. We carry it out for the sole reason that it is the right thing to do. Both Washington and Marshall would have known well the Collect for Peace in the Book of Common Prayer: To be in the service of God, who is “the author of peace and lover of concord,” rather than indulgence of self, is the path of “perfect freedom.”
Notwithstanding his flaws, I continue to revere George Washington, and, in contrast with most historians, I rank him first among our former presidents. At the end of the day, I find it reassuring that while we might attempt to cancel him, he does not cancel us. He is present and accessible in history. We can read his words and visit his home. The precedents he established remain with us. His example stands firm.
With the assistance of excellent biographical treatments—such as the splendid books by Gordon S. Wood, Myron Magnet, Richard Brookhiser, Ron Chernow, and Robert Middlekauff—you can bring him to life by deploying your historical imagination. Re-create him in the round and observe the struggles he faced and the challenges he met.
Study his vices and his virtues. Grapple with the actuality of a consummate leader who was limited in his moral vision and therefore unjust in his treatment of a large number of his fellow human beings, but also courageous and patient, responsive to the claims of duty and honor. Consider the complete Washington: not a marble man or, even worse, an impassive, two-dimensional cutout, but the real deal, manifestly imperfect, but still awesome, exemplary in crucial respects, and irreplaceable.