Editor’s Note: Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch are the authors of “The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington,” which is now available in bookstores everywhere. The views expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion on CNN.
For the past few years, American politics has been in a state of turmoil. We’ve endured a version of political leadership characterized by near-constant outrage, bombast, bragging, personal attacks and the brazen flaunting of power. The national discourse seems fueled by insults and rage. And public faith in our institutions is eroding fast.
We’re a long way from the leadership of George Washington, whose very name evokes American patriotism and power. His stereotypical image is one of a strong, formidable leader who gave us – and made us – our best.
In researching “The First Conspiracy,” a book about a secret plot to kill George Washington during the Revolutionary War, what struck us most – and what made us reflect most deeply on the politics of today – was not his strength. Instead, it was a different set of qualities: modesty, humility and selflessness – even when those closest to Washington plotted against him.
In 1776, powerful British sympathizers in the colonies hatched a plot against Washington – some say to kidnap him; others say to kill him. Either way, George Washington’s life was in danger. The plot itself was led by Governor of New York William Tryon, but the most surprising turn came when Washington’s elite unit of soldiers – his trusted bodyguards, also known as “Life Guards” – turned against him. They were supposed to be the best of the best. Indeed, Washington personally selected these men.
It was a handful of these Life Guards who switched sides and joined the Loyalist conspiracy. How did Washington react when he learned about this plot? He didn’t rant and rave. Instead, he helped launch a methodical and top secret investigation.
Rather than focus on himself or even on the enemies who might have killed him, he focused on maintaining the army’s morale and reputation in the face of a potential scandal. After a court martial, one of the conspiring soldiers was hanged in front of 20,000 witnesses. But ultimately it was Washington’s measured and calm response, while his life was in danger no less, that helped him prevail after this potentially devastating threat to his leadership.
Washington’s modesty and selflessness were in evidence from the beginning of his public career. In May 1775, when he arrived in the city of Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress, Washington was a 43-year-old Virginia landowner not well known outside his home colony. He was thrust into a position of national significance because he possessed something almost every other delegate lacked: military experience. He was one of a few potential candidates to create and lead an army in a brewing war with England. Suddenly, everyone was studying this Virginian closely.
A physically striking man, Washington carried himself with the poise of a former military officer. But what almost every delegate noticed most about him was how modest and gracious he was. In a chamber where many were competing to talk the most and the loudest, Washington spoke quietly. More often, he listened.
When it came time for the delegates to formally select who would take command of the army, Washington’s modesty took on an almost comic dimension. When his name was announced as a candidate, he literally fled the chamber, to prevent even the appearance of vanity. John Adams, who nominated him, remembered the moment: “Mr. Washington, who happened to sit near the door, as soon as he heard me allude to him, from his usual modesty darted into the library room.”
When Washington received the command, his words of acceptance were almost entirely self-effacing: “I beg it may be remembered, by every gentleman in the room, that I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
Was Washington’s restraint and modesty an indication of weakness? On the contrary, it was precisely these qualities, combined with a tireless work ethic and an unmistakable dedication to his army, that earned him almost universal respect.
Arguably, Washington’s greatest achievement of the Revolutionary era did not come on the battlefield. In 1783, after almost eight years of fighting, the mighty British army finally surrendered to Washington’s forces, and the question now for the colonies was: what should happen next?
At this moment, some believed that Washington himself should seize power from the Congress and, backed by his army, become the self-appointed leader of the colonies. One officer suggested he declare himself king; or, if that term was distasteful, to choose a different word, but wield equivalent power.
In the late eighteenth century, such a power grab by a conquering military leader was the most expected outcome. How would Washington meet this moment?
He voluntarily ceded his power – and retired.
When King George III of England learned of this, he reportedly said “if he does that, he must be the greatest man in the world.”
Get our free weekly newsletter
The general’s retirement was short-lived. In 1789, he was elected the first president. One of his first gestures was to reject the address of “His Highness” or “His Excellency;” instead he chose the more democratic “Mr. President.” After two terms, he voluntarily left office, setting the precedent for term limits and the peaceful transition of power.
Modesty, humility and selflessness – remember when those were American values?
As the nation’s first chief executive, Washington set the standard of not just a humble president, but a humble presidency – an office meant to serve the public, not to serve itself.
Which brings us to today. For the past few years, America has endured a political climate that is the opposite of Washington’s modest ideal. In the midst of this turmoil, it’s worth reconsidering a return to those simple virtues of modesty, humility and selflessness, embodied by the great leaders in America’s history – starting with our first.