George Washington’s Classical Leadership Style

Stan Ward suggests the ancient Roman warning, "Remember that you are mortal!" should be heeded by us all.

For classical education to realize its full leader- forming potential, our students must be steeped in stories that illustrate classical values. We accomplish this by teaching stories that tell us something transcendent about the human potential for greatness. These stories remind us that we were created in God’s image, and that Western culture and its leaders have been shaped for millennia by a consistent core of ethical convictions. When we teach these stories and espouse these values, we are not simply preserving a tradition; we are also preparing future leaders.

After the American victory over the British in the Revolutionary War, George Washington rode through the streets of Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore on his way to voluntarily surrender his sword to the Continental Congress. The scene looked like a Roman Triumph procession: crowds thronged to view the great and victorious general, the hero who led his nation to victory by sheer determination. In fact, a victorious ancient Roman general would have ridden through similar crowds, while a slave whispered in his ear, “Momento mori!” (Remember that you are mortal!) Washington did not need this reminder, and classical values are one reason why.

As the Revolutionary War dragged on, the nation looked to George Washington for leadership. As a result, Washington had multiple opportunities to become a military dictator. Even apart from Roman generals, such an action would not have been unprecedented. During the previous century in Britain, Oliver Cromwell had led his parliamentary forces to a military victory over the king. When Parliament proved ineffective at governance, Cromwell made himself Lord Protector of England. In a similar spirit, one of Washington’s officers, Colonel Lewis Nichola, condemned the “weakness of republics” in 1782, and he encouraged Washington
to “assume the crown of America.” Washington’s response was direct and forceful: “If you have any regard for your country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me . . . banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate . . . sentiments of a like nature.” Washington’s reply was so effective that Nicola wrote three separate apologies in three days’ time.

One of Washington’s most famous rejections of military dictatorship occurred in response to the Newburg Conspiracy. Angered by the Congress’s inability to provide for the Continental Army, an anonymous author wrote a wide-spread public letter calling for a military coup. When Washington heard about the proposal, he gathered his officers on March 16, 1783. In theatrical style, Washington fumbled with his coat pockets and pulled out his own letter. He moved the letter first closer and then farther from his eyes, attempting to read it. Finally, he pulled out his spectacles, pausing for a moment to apologize, “Gentlemen, it appears that not only have I grown gray in the service to my country, but I have also grown blind.”

But his public statement was conclusive: “This dreadful alternative, of either deserting our country in the extremest hour of her distress, or turning our arms against it . . . has something so shocking in it, that humanity revolts at the idea.” He went on to critique the author, saying such a person could not be “a friend to this country” but “an insidious Foe.”

How did his officers respond? These soldiers, infuriated by Congress’s ineptitude, battle-hardened from fighting a war while constantly short of men and supplies; these same men stood and wept.

So what motivated Washington to refuse these opportunities for power? Though Washington had not received as thorough a classical education as many of his contemporaries, he was enamored by classical virtues, and especially the republican value of self-sacrificing leaders. These same virtues were featured in Washington’s favorite play, a play he liked so much that he had it performed for the troops during the dreadful winter at Valley Forge.

Cato by Addison was the most popular play of its time. Not only did Washington know the play well, but he famously cited it frequently: “’Tis not in mortals to command success, / But we’ll do more, Sempronius, we’ll deserve it.” Though Caesar may have represented the pinnacle of military success and power, in 18th century England and America, Cato embodied republican virtue. For example: “Dost thou love watchings, abstinence, and toil, / laborious virtues all? Learn them from Cato;/ Success and fortune must thou learn from Caesar!” And, “What is a Roman that is Caeasar’s foe? / Greater than Caesar, he’s the friend of virtue.”

In Washington’s day, Cato’s character was popularly considered virtuous, while Caesar was viewed as an enemy of republicanism, and, by extension, an enemy of the emergent American republic. According to author Gary Wills, Addison’s chief theme in Cato was the rejection of Caesar-like dictatorship. When Cato first appears in Act 2, his speech begins with a strong denunciation of Caesar and his military threat to the Roman republic, equating his success with crimes. Cato was an enemy of Caesar because Caesar represented dictatorial power—the opposite of republican values. When Cato realized that Caesar’s dictatorship was inevitable, he ed for his life. With Caesar in power, the Roman Republic was finally abolished, and Cato took his own life rather than submit himself to tyranny.

In the same manner that the theatrical hero Cato surrendered his life, Washington rejected the temptation of tyranny and surrendered his power.

Washington’s military resignation was not his only chance to thwart the establishment of an American dictator. When Washington came to power as President, many people assumed that he would be president for life. Several Americans suggested that he should be called “His Excellency.” Instead, Washington chose the title “Mr. President.” After two terms in office, Washington volunteered to step aside, announcing his decision in a letter published in newspapers.

When considering Washington’s ability to voluntarily resign from executive power, another classical source must be considered. In 460 B.C.E. Cincinnatus served as Consul of Rome, Rome’s highest elected office. When his one-year term of service ended, he returned to his farm. Soon after, the Aequinans became a serious threat to Rome’s security, and the current consul proved unable to meet the challenge. The Senate authorized Consul Horatius Pulvilus to nominate a dictator, and Cincinnatus was chosen to serve for six months. Within a matter of weeks, the crisis was averted and Cincinnatus willingly resigned his dictatorship. A later crisis resulted in his being called to dictatorship for a second time and, a second time, he resigned voluntarily and returned to his farm.

If Washington was not entirely aware of the parallels between himself and Cincinnatus, others wanted to make it obvious. The portrait artist Houdon even depicted Washington dressed as Cincinnatus in a Roman toga. For his contemporaries, Washington became a modern mythical Cincinnatus, complete with a retirement to a farm (in this case, Washington’s beloved Mt. Vernon). Writer Gordon Wood calls Washington “a living embodiment of all that classical republican virtue of the age was eagerly striving to recover.”

So what is the lesson here for classical educators? Notice the impact that stories had on Washington’s leadership. Though Washington may not have been formally educated in a classical manner, stories of virtuous classical heroes played a large role in his imagination and the cultural imagination of his times. When King George III heard that Washington might willingly step down from power, tradition says that he replied, “If [Washing- ton] can do that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

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