George Washington and Abraham Lincoln -- our greatest presidents -- faced the greatest challenges of any president -- from inside the nation -- domestic rebellion. Washington had established the supremacy of civilian leadership over the military. He had modeled himself after Cincinnatus. This Roman general preferred to return to his farm instead of staying in power. In 458 BCE a Roman army was surrounded and besieged by the enemy, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was appointed dictator, an emergency office of great and temporary power. Roman tradition transformed him into a hero.
Livy, the Roman historian, retold this tale in his History of Rome: "For those who are disdainful of all human values except riches and who think that high position and excellence are impossible without great wealth, Our army was under siege by the enemy. The one hope of the people and of Rome was Cincinnatus noted for his military skill." He cultivated a farm of four acres across the Tiber River from Rome. A delegation from the senate found him busy with the work of his farm--plowing. After greetings had been exchanged, they requested that he put on his toga to hear the charge of the Roman Senate. After wiping off his dust and sweat, he put his toga on. The delegation informed him that he had proclaimed the dictator of Rome in order to save the besieged Roman Army. Cincinnatus took command of the army. He leads the army to victory. The next morning Cincinnatus arose and went into the Forum before daybreak. He gave up his power as a dictator and went back to his farm.
As the greatest hero of the French and Indian War, Washington wrote a report. He declared, " There is something charming to the sound of bullets." King George III of Great Britain read the report. He commented that if Washington had been hit by a bullet, his attitude would have been quite different. Like his hero Cincinnatus, Washington returned to his farm.
When the American Revolutionary War began in 1775, John Adams suggested that George Washington as the most experienced military man in the Thirteen Colonies should be in charge of the new national army, the Continental Army. Washington advertised his availability for the position by wearing his old officer's uniform from the French and Indian War. Throughout his military career, Washington always leads the charge into the front lines. Though bullets pierced his coats and horses were shot out from underneath him, his luck held. Washington was never wounded. As Patton once noted, a good general needs luck; and fortunate for the nation in the making, Washington had luck in abundance.
The Patriots lost many battles during the American Revolution. Toward the end of 1776, George Washington knew he had to do something. He had less than 3,000 soldiers under his command. Their period of service would come to an end in less than two weeks. Washington crossed the Delaware River in a snowstorm on Christmas night, 1776. At dawn, he surprised the Hessian troops at Trenton, New Jersey. Still recovering from their Christmas merrymaking, they surrendered. Washington had won the first real Patriot victory of the American Revolutionary War. Now Americans had hoped they could win. Washington also promptly resigned the office of "Dictator of America" that Congress had given him in that desperate hour. Washington kept the army together, exhausted the British will to fight, and won the war.
George Washington's finest moment of courage was not facing British bullets in the heat of battle. Rather he confronted his former comrades-in-arms. His officers had not been paid for months. They wanted to set up a new government. They approached George Washington to take charge. Washington responded, "I want to read a letter that I have received from Congress. But you must excuse me for taking out my eyeglasses. My eyes have grown dim in the service of our country." The officers ashamed went back to their barracks. A few months later, Washington bade farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City and then resigned from the army. Like his hero Cincinnatus, Washington returned to his farm.
Washington became President General of the Society of the Cincinnati. It was dear to his heart because of the spirit of good fellowship and comradeship it promoted. He had foiled the ambitions of some of his officers to overthrow the civilian government. There had been considerable delay in paying them at the end of the American Revolutionary War. A society filled in for governmental neglect by establishing a charitable fund to benefit impoverished officers. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio was founded by members of the society.
Washington was summoned to lead the Constitutional Convention that created the form of government we have today. As the chair or president of the convention, he moved things along, encouraged discussion, and mediated disputes. During the Constitutional Convention, one of the delegates proposed that the army should be limited to 3,000 soldiers. Washington joked that this would work if the enemy would also agree. When the convention finished its work, people knew they could trust Washington to be the role model as president.
Washington was called to launch a new national government under the Constitution we have today. April 15 is fast approaching. The problem then as now nobody liked to pay taxes. In 1794, the farmers in the Pennsylvania backwoods did not feel like paying taxes on whiskey. This excise tax had been passed by the federal government to raise revenue for the new nation. Like the British tax collectors, the American tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Washington summoned the militias of five states and federal troops that he lead in person against the Pennsylvania rebels. He commanded such an overwhelming show of force that most of the would-be whiskey rebels fled. The few that remained were arrested, tried, and convicted. Shortly afterward, Washington pardoned the rebels to avoid creating any martyrs.
As president, Washington served the nation, kept the peace, saved lives, and preserved the Union. Washington's greatest gift was passing the torch of leadership. Washington was greater than the nation when he became the first president under the Constitution we have today. He refused to become king or serve for life but insisted upon passing leadership to John Adams as president and retiring from public life. The nation had become greater than him and could survive without him. Like his hero Cincinnatus, Washington returned to his farm. Washington decided to leave when he was at the top of his form. Washington always knew when to quit before he reached the Peter Principle. He quit as dictator of America in 1776, resigned as the general of the Continental Army in 1783, and retired as president in 1797. Like his hero Cincinnatus, he returned to his farm each time.
In conclusion, Washington's leadership never goes out of style. He offers standards and examples that are worthwhile imitating. Washington was in the public eye for over thirty years. If Washington's time tested principles worked for him and our country, they can work for us. Colonel Henry "Light-Horse Harry Lee," said upon George Washington's death that he had been "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." These words remain true today and his principles of leadership remain timeless.