Indispensable Man

February 22, 1994

" 'George,' said the father, 'do you know who killed that beautiful little cherry tree yonder in the garden?'. . . 'I can't tell a lie, Pa; you know I can't tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.' "

It is sad but true that this charming fable, from an 1800 biography of George Washington, is probably better known to the general public than many significant truths about the first and, many believe, the greatest president.

Experts consistently relegate George Washington to second place behind Abraham Lincoln in the "greatness" rating game. Polls of small panels (under 100) of historians in 1948, 1962, 1981 and 1982 all ranked them one-two. A poll published in 1988, based on detailed questionnaires completed by over 800 teaching historians, ranked Lincoln first again -- and Washington third, behind Franklin D. Roosevelt. A special poll of non-specialists in the 1950s found more than twice as many people listed in "Who's Who" rated Lincoln above Washington.

The 20th century assessment of Washington is puzzling. Franklin Roosevelt did lead the nation for 12 years, through the Great Depression and World War II with skill and imagination. Lincoln led it inspiringly through four years of Civil War, an even greater threat to national survival than the 1933-1945 period.

But George Washington was the most important American leader not for four years or 12 years but 18. During those years, largely because of him, achievements without which there could be no United States of America were recorded.

From 1775 to 1783, he commanded the army that with its battlefield victories made this nation a reality. When its existence was threatened not by a foreign army but by an inadequate political structure in the aftermath of war, Washington presided over the convention that drew up a brilliant constitution for a federal government.

He led that new federal government for eight years as an extremely popular and skillful president. Then -- and this may have been the most important thing he did -- he voluntarily transferred power to a successor as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which, in 1793, it definitely was not. One biographer called him "the indispensable man." He was, not only for his times but for posterity.

George Washington was popular -- revered -- despite being the most austere, aloof, private president ever. Without Parson Mason L. Weems' improbable stories about never telling a lie, etc., many Americans of his day and most of the 18th century would not have thought of Washington as a person at all, but merely as a bloodless monument.

Even today, his birthday, after a half-century of excellent and positive biographical investigation and interpretation, most Americans know little more of him than the Weems fables, the glum face on the classroom wall and the dollar bill, and standing up in a boat. He deserves better.

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