I don’t think you have to guess the subject of this photo I took last November. Even so, George Washington’s star has dimmed slightly. The last Gallup poll that I saw of how Americans viewed their Presidents, back in 2013, ranked him only fifth, trailing Ronald Reagan, Abraham Lincoln, Bill Clinton, and John F. Kennedy. Only one of the names preceding the Virginian deserves to be that high. I’ll let you figure that one out.
Historians, not as present-minded as their countrymen, invariably rank Washington among the top three. There’s a reason for that.
Washington did not have the communication skills, the humor or the wiliness that made Frank Roosevelt perhaps the master American politician of the 20th century. He did not have the literary brilliance or on-his-sleeves humanity of Lincoln. But he was fully their equal in courage, and surpassed them as a manager and a mentor to brilliant younger men (like Alexander Hamilton).
Lincoln and Roosevelt are justifiably acclaimed for saving the U.S. in its hours of maximum danger. But without Washington, there wouldn’t have been a country to save at all. He was, as his Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer James Thomas Flexner dubbed him, the “Indispensable Man”—the soldier who held the country together during the American Revolution, the man who renounced power immediately after the conflict (still a relative rarity now, and inconceivable back in the 18th century), and the statesman realistic enough to know the young republic was still too weak to fight another war during his administration.
And then there was slavery. Washington was the only one of the nine slaveholding Presidents to set them free in his will—and the only Founding Father to do so. He did far more than speak dreamily of emancipating slaves in a far-off future, as Thomas Jefferson was wont to do. He took pains to figure out how to make it possible for his ex-slaves to survive on their own, and how to keep himself out of debt in life so that he could achieve his objective of manumission in death.
(The photo, by the way, is a bust at the entrance to George Washington University’s Medical School in the Foggy Bottom section of Washington, DC.)