George Washington was a larger-than-life man in multiple ways. At six feet and three inches tall, he towered over most peers by at least six inches. His 200 pounds were well distributed over his frame, hardened by outdoor activities and years of military campaigning.
He was also uncomfortable with his appearance. For example, he thought his nose was unseemly. Later in life, he was fitted with a bad set of dentures, which gave him his iconic stoic expression.
He may have looked taciturn, but Washington was well-loved and well-respected, which is why he was elected to be the first president. On April 30, 1789, he was sworn in as the first president of the United States.
Washington loved the study of character and self-improvement. It was almost a hobby for him. He determined never to touch his face in public, advised his nephew to “be courteous to all, but intimate with few,” and dined on a Spartan diet primarily of Brazil nuts, pineapple, and salted cod.
But he wasn’t always a paragon of virtue with a carefully crafted public persona. Once, he was an impetuous youth who was to blame for the outbreak of the French and Indian War.
The year was 1754, and Washington was a young man in the British army when his commander sent him to negotiate with the French over territorial disagreements in modern-day Pittsburgh. The disagreements were not minor. The English were demanding that the French vacate the Ohio Valley, and the French demanded the same of the English.
Washington’s task was delicate, and his partner was touchy. He was accompanied by some 400 British, colonial, and Native American troops, including a 50-year-old chief of the Mingo tribe the British called “Half-King,” who had plenty of experience in warfare and statesmanship and a bone to pick with the French.
There was no delicacy in the way the expedition managed the situation. When they reached the camp, they attacked. Washington won the initial skirmish, killing the French diplomat, but had to retreat to a hastily constructed wooden palisade in the middle of a meadow called Fort Necessity.
The fort was in an indefensible position, and Washington was outmaneuvered, outmanned, and outgunned. He and his forces surrendered.
The French accused the young soldier of provoking an attack during peacetime and declared war against Great Britain. Washington’s name was heard as far away as London — and London wasn’t happy. His first military expedition had been a complete failure, and that is putting it lightly. At 21 years old he had started the first proto-world war, which would involve the three largest empires of the time and double the British national debt.
Washington was not proud of that episode. But it was an episode he learned from. It was his only military defeat, and it arguably led to his careful cultivation of good character, if only to counter the bad name the incident had left him. In more ways than one, it prepared him to be the indispensable man of the American Revolution.
In 1783, the unexpected happened: The colonies practically managed to win the revolution. Washington was prepared to retire to his estate at Mount Vernon and live out the rest of his days farming. Continental Congress, on the other hand, was struggling.
The problem was that the war was not technically over. Troops had to remain assembled until the treaty was signed. Congress, of course, was broke, and those same troops had not been paid. They were tired, bloodied, and bored of sitting on a grassy knoll in Newburgh, New York. It was a recipe for mutiny, and Congress knew it.
At the beginning of the year, officers began circulating pamphlets proposing that the troops turn on the colonies. They wanted to disband the ineffective Congress and make Washington king. Washington was horrified.
On March 15, he hurried to Newburgh to address his men. He begged them to pursue their national duty and not throw away the great experiment they had only just begun pursuing.
This was the 18th century, and social norms demanded that leaders avoid showing any physical weakness. That was not a problem for the imposing figure of Washington. When he had finished his speech, Washington fumbled in his jacket pocket and pulled out a tiny pair of spectacles. After affixing them to his broad, Roman nose, he looked out at his men.
“Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles,” he said quietly. “I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”
The men were taken aback, some were in tears. With a single gesture, Washington had averted an early end of the new country’s republican enterprise.
This same man stepped down from the presidency to avoid dying in office. His desire to leave political life to farm at Mount Vernon defined the American vision of a republican man for generations. Although Washington made mistakes, it isn’t hyperbolic to say that without him, there might not be a United States.