Are presidents born or made?
That question, which resonates with special urgency during the present campaign season, lies at the heart of a new profile of George Washington in the latest issue of Humanities magazine.
In an article called “How to be Presidential,” writer Edward G. Lengel concludes that Washington, the first U.S. president, didn’t have an intuitive sense of leadership. Washington learned how to lead, Lengel suggests, by force of habit and trial and error.
Lengel’s opinion carries some weight, since he’s the editor-in-chief of the Papers of George Washington, a multiyear project in which Washington’s official papers are being collected and annotated. When complete, the project is expected to span 90 volumes. Lengel is also the author of “George Washington: America’s Founder in Myth and Memory.”
One prevailing myth about Washington is that he was born with a genius for leadership that naturally led him into the presidency. But Lengel notes that the young George Washington had a temper and was a poor letter writer.
Slowly, he learned to better control his anger. Washington also made a concerted effort to become a better writer — a much-needed skill at a time when so much communication was carried in personal correspondence.
In a way, Washington was consciously preparing himself for a role.
“A devotee of classical drama and the stage, Washington carried himself as an actor in the spotlight — not out of vanity, but in the realistic knowledge that thousands of eyes watched his every move,” Lengel tells readers. “He wore his uniform of the Fairfax county militia to Congress in the knowledge that if he were to play a role in (the Revolutionary War), it would be as a soldier. Yet he disavowed any untoward ambition, declining to ask openly for command of the army and even fleeing the room when his name came up for nomination. When the delegates proffered the army command, Washington accepted gracefully, refusing to accept any pay and emphasizing unity of purpose.”
Washington’s restraint also guided his presidency, Lengel writes, “creating a code of personal conduct and bearing to which his successors would have to aspire.”
Washington’s standard is a useful one to keep in mind as voters decide which candidate is the best one to lead the country.