On this day (February 22) in 1731 (according to the Gregorian Calendar), the greatest statesman in American history was born. It can accurately be said that George Washington is truly the indispensable man in the history of the United States. Without Washington, there would be no United States today. Anyone who disputes that shows his or her ignorance of American history. (See "What if George Washington Had Never Been Born?")
Without Washington, there would have been no victory in the American Revolution. Without Washington, there would have been no Constitutional Convention or ratification of the new Constitution. Without Washington serving as President, the United States would likely have collapsed in its first few years. No one at the time could have pulled off what Washington accomplished during these critical, formative years of the United States. (See "Leadership Qualities of George Washington").
Washington was human, of course. He had his faults - the greatest of which being his status as a slave owner. Nevertheless, even in his weaknesses, he showed a determination to be better. Washington had a volatile temper, but learned to (most of the time) restrain and control it. Deeply infatuated with a woman (Sally Fairfax) who was married to another man, Washington restrained himself and, once married to Martha, devoted himself entirely to his own family. As a slave owner, Washington wrestled with his conscience, growing to deplore the evils of slavery, eventually freeing his slaves in his will. He was not perfect, but he always pointed himself in the right direction.
No temptation faced by Washington, of course, can top what he confronted in the closing years of the American Revolution. Faced with an impotent national government, a pathetically weak economy, and a disgruntled army bordering on open revolt, Washington could have assumed total power over the newly independent United States. Some suggested he become dictator or king. A lesser man would've seized the opportunity. Not Washington. He believed in a Republic. He renounced all talk of dictatorship or monarchy, and instead resigned his commission, handing all his authority over to Congress in 1783. Later, when called back into national service, he refused to serve more than two terms as President of the United States.
George Washington stands in history as a hero among heroes. And the legacy he leaves us as Americans in particular is worthy of our gratitude and respect. Abraham Lincoln is said to have declared: "Washington is the mightiest name on earth...To add brightness to the sun or glory to the name of Washington is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on." Washington undoubtedly would've considered such language more appropriate to the "Divine Author of our Blessed Religion." (See "Was George Washington a Christian?") Nevertheless, when it comes to those who fall short of divinity, it's hard to think of a figure in history mightier than George Washington.
**For more on George Washington, check out David McCullough's stirring 1776 or Ron Chernow's bestselling Washington: A Life.