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Perspective: Consider the real Mr. Washington

Priscilla Gyamfi

We’ve made it too easy to admire George Washington because we’ve made it too easy to not know the real man. After all, how could one not admire a man whose image and name is part of our daily life. The problem lies in that many of us and know practically nothing about him.

To summarize a line from Hamlet, Washington was a man who endured the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune more than any of his compatriots at this nation’s messy beginning. And like his compatriots, he was a person of both virtues and faults, some unsettling.

Among the man’s virtues was mastering his own powerful impulses and passions. To that point, historian Nathaniel Philbrick recently stated that Washington and Benedict Arnold were far more alike than not. The difference was Washington mastered himself, whereas Arnold, well we know what happened there.

The Washington we see in the painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” not only belies the true struggle on December 26, 1776, but also does not illustrate his nearly impossible task of keeping the Continental Army together in the long, bloody slog against the British Army.

Though, ironically, Washington turned out to be a poor military tactician who lost critical battles.

By the time Washington retired from public service in 1797 after over 20 years of almost continuous service, he was a tired and much bedeviled old man.

We owe the man an accurate understanding of what he really was, faults and virtues alike, because settling for the Washington myth only does him, and by extension our understanding of our country as it was and is, a great disservice.

Andrew Nelson recommends these books to learn more about Mr. Washington:

"Valiant Ambition" by Nathaniel Philbrick

"Washington" by Ron Chernow

"Washington" by James Flexner

Andrew Nelson has been involved in public education in northern Illinois for more than three decades.