Why Esteem Trumps Fame: The Lesson from George Washington that “we the people” and our Government Should Remember on this President’s Day

By Camille Davis

Rembrandt Peale
George Washington, Copy of Patriae Pater, 1850
Oil on Canvas
33 1/8 inches X 27 3/4 inches
Dallas Museum of Art

In 1850, Rembrandt Peale, one of the last living portraitists of George Washington, painted his 80thcopy of one of his most famous depictions of America’s first President. This painting – called Patriae Pater – was originally created in 1824, and its name is a variation of the Roman appellation: Father of the Country.  Although Washington passed in 1799, his role as the inaugural leader of America was still being celebrated in 1850, and portraits of him – like the Patriae Pater copies—were still being commissioned. The celebration continues today. Here’s why:

Rembrandt Peale
Patriae Pater, 1824
Oil on Canvas
71.5 inches X 53.25 inches
United States Senate

When Washington took office in 1789, he came with a well-established track record of prioritizing the needs of the country before his own. He exhibited this most aptly in his conduct as Commander of the Continental Army during the American Revolution. Although Washington masterfully projected confidence and competence in public settings, he privately anguished about the ways to lead those who entrusted their lives and fortunes to him. This apprehension infused his style of leadership with a rare sense of sobriety and magnanimity.

Those who served in the Continental Army saw myriad examples of Washington using his power to protect and serve. One poignant example is described in Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch’s recently released book called The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington. Meltzer and Mensch describe the famous episode of August 1776 when the British possessed control of New York and continuously thwarted attempts from the American forces to gain control over it. Once it became clear that Washington’s opponents outmaneuvered him, it seemed that he had only two choices: attack or surrender. The first option meant certain death or capture for his men, and the other meant placing his men at the mercy of their enemies. Washington considered and executed a third option — a great escape. He arranged for all of his men to secretly take boats across the East River from Brooklyn Heights into Manhattan. What makes Meltzer and Mensch’s account of the story worth discussing is that they emphasize Washington’s decision to be the last person in the army to take a boat to safety. He ensured that his troops evacuated first.  

Such instances of valor and unselfishness were what made Washington respected among his troops and venerated among the American public. They also led to comparisons of Washington to well-known Classical figures from ancient Greece and Rome who gained their reputations by their virtue. This perception of Washington was promoted by America’s leading intellectuals who sought to construct a new American government based on the idea of meritocracy – a proven ability to lead –instead of presumption – a desire to lead without having earned the right to do so. Painters of Washington, like Rembrandt Peale, were a part of the intellectual class that used words and images to teach Americans the importance of picking leaders who possessed the merit to govern.

With full knowledge that subsequent Presidents would not always be military heroes or even veterans, the founders bequeathed elections to us as a mechanism for deciding who would best represent the interests of the nation. Their hope was that we would overcome our own personal biases and petty preferences in order to choose presidents and other elected officials who could serve the common good.

To be sure, George Washington was not perfect. No politician will ever be. We human beings share a penchant for error.

Gilbert Stuart
George Washington, Athenaeum, 1796
Oil on Canvas
28.63 inches x 23.63 inches
United States Senate

However, what made Washington remarkable as a general and as a President was his desire and determination to overcome his shortcomings in order to rise to the great challenges of his time.

By the time that the fighting of the Revolution began, Washington was the most famous man on the American continent. Because of this, he could have become a great tyrant who worked for political expediency and political glory.

However, instead of resting in fame, Washington chose to prove to his fellow Americans that he was worthy of their trust by behaving with personal honor. His conduct as general and later as President solidified something greater than fame.  Washington earned respect and the right to be the sole American bestowed with the honor, Patriae Pater.

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