We tend to see them—Adams, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Benjamin Rush, George Washington—as figures in a costume pageant; that is often the way they’re portrayed. And we tend to see them as much older than they were because we’re seeing them in the portraits by Gilbert Stuart and others when they were truly the Founding Fathers—when they were president or chief justice of the Supreme Court and their hair, if it hadn’t turned white, was powdered white. We see the awkward teeth. We see the elder statesmen.
At the time of the Revolution, they were all young. It was a young man’s, a young woman’s cause. George Washington took command of the Continental Army in the summer of 1775 at the age of 43. He was the oldest of them. Adams was 40. Jefferson was all of 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. Benjamin Rush—who was the leader of the antislavery movement at the time, who introduced the elective system into higher education in this country, who was the first to urge the humane treatment of patients in mental hospitals—was 30 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Furthermore, none of them had any prior experience in revolutions; they weren’t experienced revolutionaries who’d come in to take part in this biggest of all events. They were winging it. They were improvising.
Washington wasn’t chosen by his fellow members of the Continental Congress because he was a great military leader. He was chosen because they knew him; they knew the kind of man he was; they knew his character, his integrity.
George Washington is the first of our political generals—a very important point about Washington. And we’ve been very lucky in our political generals. By political generals, I don’t mean to suggest that is a derogatory or dismissive term. They are political in the sense that they understand how the system works, that they, as commander in chief, are not the boss. Washington reported to Congress. And no matter how difficult it was, how frustrating it was, how maddening it could be for Washington to get Congress to do what so obviously needed to be done to sustain his part in the fight, he never lost patience with them. He always played by the rule.
Washington was not, as were Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Hamilton, a learned man. He was not an intellectual. Nor was he a powerful speaker like his fellow Virginian Patrick Henry. What Washington was, above all, was a leader. He was a man people would follow. And as events would prove, he was a man whom some—a few—would follow through hell.
“The Glorious Cause of America”
Address delivered at Brigham Young University
September 27, 2005
Read more about historian David McCullough’s memorable remarks to the BYU Forum about American independence and those we know as its Founding Fathers in this article in BYU magazine.
And, for good measure, watch the following trailer for a proposed film about George Washington…