Historically literate Americans to identify James Madison as “the father of the Constitution.” Not so. Much as I admire Madison, the real father of the Constitution—the man without whom it could never have been framed, ratified, or implemented—was George Washington.
Washington saw the need for a strong, national constitution before almost anyone else. He provided indispensable leadership before, during, and after the Constitutional Convention in 1787. He steered the Constitution and the new federal government through their first tumultuous years. He passed landmark constitutional judgments as president that established enduring precedents. And he provided, in his final farewell, one of the wisest and most far-seeing commentaries ever written about the U.S. constitutional order. No one else’s influence on the Constitution comes close to Washington’s. Without James Madison, the Constitution would have looked very different. Without George Washington, it would never have been born.
Washington was—alongside Abraham Lincoln—the greatest constitutional leader in American history. He guided the American constitutional project for a quarter century—from his appointment as commander of the Continental Army in 1775 until his resignation from the presidency in 1797. Washington led powerfully and effectively a position of fixed principles. I want to highlight five principles that I believe were central to Washington’s personal character and constitutional leadership: (1) unity, (2) liberty, (3) duty, (4) humility, and (5) faith.
1. Unity. Washington first learned the need for unity among the American colonies during the 1750s as a young soldier fighting in the French and Indian War. In his early to mid-twenties, Washington saw how the failure of Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and other colonies to band together had disastrous consequences for the British armies. When Washington left soldiering in the late 1750s to woo and wed the wealthy widow, Martha Custis, he presciently observed that neighboring colonies needed to unite for purposes of transport and commerce.
Sixteen years later, he saw their need to unite in a far more pressing cause. As commander of the Continental Army, Washington experienced firsthand the frustrations of a decentralized, disunited political order. Throughout the Revolutionary War, Washington cajoled members of Congress and state governors, with mixed success, to keep his army clothed, fed, and in the field. At the end of the war, Washington called for “an indissoluble union of the states under one federal head.” Later, as president of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Washington helped realize that vision.
When the Constitution had been ratified, Washington made union the watchword of his presidency. He visited every state in the union and worked to welcome the Constitution’s erstwhile opponents into the new republic’s fold. Washington’s final farewell to the American people included a prayer “that your Union and brotherly affection may be perpetual,” and “that the free constitution, which is the work of your hands, may be sacredly maintained.”
2. Liberty. As soldier, citizen, and statesman, Washington was an impassioned champion of liberty. His commitment to liberty was capacious, encompassing freedom’s many aspects. His devotion to religious liberty and press freedom was especially pronounced.
In the case of religious liberty, Washington championed the rights of all believers and even nonbelievers. He considered religious freedom “not only among the choicest of [the people’s] blessings, but also of their rights.” Defying the pervasive anti-Catholicism of his time, Washington rebuked soldiers sharply for anti-Catholic expressions. As commander of the Continental Army, he attended the services of many sects. As president of the Constitutional Convention, he pointedly attended a Catholic Mass, thus signaling that Catholics would be warmly welcomed in the united American republic.
As the country’s first president, Washington wrote beautiful letters Jewish congregations, applauding their contributions and extoling religious freedom for all. For Washington religious freedom meant more than mere toleration. “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of,” he wrote, “as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” Instead, Washington wanted full freedom and flourishing for all. He prayed in biblical cadences that someday “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
In the case of freedom of speech, Washington worked to ensure that even his political opponents enjoyed a fair hearing. As president, Washington faced strident and scurrilous abuse in the press—including from a journalist hired by his own secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson. But Washington never abused his office to silence his critics.
3. Duty. In all his roles, Washington was scrupulously devoted to duty. He did what needed to be done, no matter the difficulty and despite the odds. By all accounts, his physical courage was astonishing. He seemed impervious and oblivious to bullets whizzing around him. After his first battle, Washington bragged to his brother with youthful bravado: “I heard the bullets whistle, and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” And yet he acted, then and later, as if the ferocity of war emboldened him—as if he had no sense of personal danger, no trace or semblance of fear.
But duty meant more for Washington than physical courage and pluck. It meant honoring one’s assigned role and never overstepping one’s rightful authority. Throughout the war, Washington deferred unfailingly to Congress, even when he found the legislature’s behavior maddening. This deference not only earned Washington the trust of the American people; it established forever the principle of civilian control over the military. One of Washington’s greatest moments came in 1783 when he quashed an incipient insurrection against congressional authority. That plot, fomented by Washington’s own officers, threatened to destroy the American republic before it properly took root. Few forces have done more than Washington’s example to preserve Americans from the military overlordship of a Napoleon or a Caesar.
As president, Washington honored his oath to defend and uphold the Constitution. He knew that every decision he made would set an enduring precedent, and he weighed every decision accordingly. Many of those decisions—regarding the scope of congressional authority, the president’s role in foreign affairs, and much else—have stood the test of time. Although he served in an executive capacity, Washington was arguably our first and greatest constitutional judge.
4. Humility. Washington made wise constitutional decisions in part because he had gifted advisors. He chose his counselors well, and he listened intently to what they had to say. Washington was a great listener. When Congress passed a controversial bill creating a national bank, Washington asked each member of his cabinet for written advise on whether the bill was constitutional and whether he should sign it. The clashing briefs of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton on that issue remain some of our our most incisive statements of constitutional principle. Washington ultimately sided with Hamilton, rightly I believe, with profound precedential consequences for the rest of American history.
It is sometimes said that Washington was self-conscious about his lack of formal education. And yet, Washington surrounded himself with men who were both younger and much better educated than he. Rather than assert his martial prowess or denigrate the book learning of his young aides, Washington stayed up late listening to what they had to say. He learned all he could from anyone willing to teach. He read good books and devoured newspapers. He was one of the best-informed Americans of his age. He was humble enough to seek improvement throughout his life. His humility formed the heart of his greatness.
In no instance is Washington’s growth more striking than on the question of slavery. Early in his life, Washington was a product of the slaveholding milieu of Virginia’s Tidewater aristocracy. He spoke and wrote about enslaved persons with chilling severity. In 1767, he asked a correspondent to sell a slave named Tom “in any of the Islands you may go to for whatever he will fetch.” In the 1760s, slave transport to the Caribbean islands was a sentence to slow death in hellish conditions. But Tom, in Washington’s view, was “both a rogue and a runaway,” and should be “handcuffed till you get to sea” and sold at one of history’s most ghoulish markets.
The Revolution reshaped Washington’s views on slavery and race. Black soldiers fought bravely in Washington’s army. Many of Washington’s wartime aides—Alexander Hamilton, John Laurens, and the Marquis de Lafayette—were young antislavery idealists. Their views influenced the general’s, though it is impossible to say how close Washington came to acting on their advice. He eventually wished to have nothing to do with slavery. But he couldn’t quite see how to extricate himself from a system in which he was so deeply enmeshed—or he couldn’t quite bring himself to make the necessary sacrifices.
As president, Washington stayed mostly silent regarding slavery. He calculated, perhaps accurately, that agitation about slavery would rend the union irreparably without undermining slavery.
In his retirement, however, Washington finally decided to act. In his last will and testament, Washington freed every one of the enslaved persons held in his name. (He had no legal authority to manumit the “dower slaves” of his wife, Martha.) As a sign of his earnestness, Washington personally signed every page of his will. In thirty years, he had grown from a typical Virginia plantation enslaver into the country’s most prominent early emancipator. It was an impressive trajectory, though Washington—like the rest of the country—still had a long way to go. One visitor recalled the former president observing that, if the country were ever to divide by section and wage war slavery, Washington intended to be “of the northern part.”
5. Faith. Washington was animated, through all the years of his public service, by profound religious faith. He often used terms like “Providence” rather than specifically Christian or even theist diction. But there can be no question that Washington believed in God, nor that he believed God had a special providence for the infant United States of America.
Washington considered the Constitution’s creation to be “little short of a miracle.” He saw in “religion and morality” two “indispensable supports” to political prosperity and constitutional liberty. In a 1790 letter to a Jewish congregation in Georgia, Washington praised the “wonder-working Deity . . . whose providential agency as lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation,” and he prayed that this same God would “make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.”
Washington also had faith in the American people themselves. No one more than Washington had seen the people at their worst. He had many occasions to lament their fickleness, their fecklessness, and their overweening self-interested. But he believed that the American people were virtuous at their core and would come through in the end.
Someone has said that you can always trust the American people to do the right thing—after they have exhausted all the alternatives. At the end of the Revolutionary War, with victory finally secure, Washington worried that the newly independent people, “like young heirs come a little prematurely perhaps to a large inheritance,” might “riot for a while.” This was “a circumstance which is to be lamented,” Washington continued, but it would “work its own cure” because, he believed, “there is virtue at the bottom.”
In our divided and divisive times, may we all work to vindicate Washington’s ancient confidence in the American people. May we show that there is still “virtue at the bottom.” Perhaps we could start by reaffirming Washington’s core principles of unity, liberty, duty, humility, and faith.