Sixteen years ago, I stood at Mount Vernon and watched the funeral procession of George Washington. For a moment, it felt like the real funeral of George Washington - a brief moment made difficult by all the spectators (like me) with cameras and in modern clothing lining both sides of the procession and a moment completely shattered when I saw one of the early American soldiers sporting sunglasses!
I attended the 1999 bicentennial reenactment of Washington's funeral, because I recognized the significance of the man being honored. With the passing of George Washington in December 14, 1799, the United States of America lost its greatest leader - then and since.
To be sure, our nation has been blessed with wonderful leaders, including several of Washington's contemporaries (the men we know as "the Founding Fathers") and many of our Presidents, military leaders, civil rights activists, and religious figures throughout history. But Washington tops them all given the sheer breadth of his experience (political, business, and military) as well as the indispensable nature of his contributions. Without Washington, there would almost certainly be no United States of America today.
While an imperfect man (Washington, after all, was a slave owner - though a progressive one whose conscience led him eventually to manumission), George Washington embodied the highest ideals of character and service. Faced with the temptation of becoming dictator (or perhaps king) after the American Revolution, Washington instead chose retirement. Then the nation's leaders begged him out of retirement to supervise the Constitutional Convention and to accept the presidency under the new Constitution. Washington faithfully served two terms and, once again, turned over the reins of power and headed home to Mount Vernon.
In this time of political and social division, those of us who love America can only hope that the vast majority of Americans will agree that whatever greatness our nation has achieved in its short history is due in no small measure to the foundation laid by the men and women of the founding generation. And, when one looks at the founding, the figure of George Washington looms the largest.
In the end, Abraham Lincoln summed up Washington's legacy the best: "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."