Editorial Note: Our offices are closed in observance of Presidents Day. We hope you enjoy this historical reflection from Chief Investment Strategist Alexander Green.
As today is Presidents Day and the U.S. markets are closed, I’d like to take a break from the investment commentary and share a story about my favorite American president: George Washington.
A portrait of him hangs over the fireplace in my living room.
It’s a large oil-on-canvas replica of the famous 1851 painting by Emanuel Leutze that depicts him crossing the Delaware. It was Washington’s first move – you may recall – in his successful surprise attack against Hessian forces on Christmas Day, 1776.
Although the original painting – like my replica – is striking, it is riddled with historical inaccuracies.
For starters, the crossing took place in the dead of night. (But that wouldn’t have made a particularly inspiring work of art.)
The flag shown – the original “Stars and Stripes” – did not exist at the time of his crossing.
The boats are wrong. They were larger with higher sides. The men did not bring horses.
It was raining.
Washington – in all likelihood – did not stand inside the boat and certainly not in such a heroic fashion.
The Delaware, at what is now called Washington Crossing, is far narrower than the river in the painting. It was not filled with icy crags.
And, not incidentally, Washington and his men are heading in the wrong direction.
Given these many artistic liberties, you might reasonably ask why the painting hangs over my mantle.
That is a story I’m only too happy to tell…
George Washington was one of Virginia’s wealthiest men. (And, like virtually all plantation owners of his day, a slaveholder.) Yet few risked more in defying tyranny.
When the revolutionary leaders pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor, it was more than just fine-sounding words.
It was treason. The founders knew that if the king’s soldiers captured them, they would be hanged.
Yet Washington left his comfortable, aristocratic life and led a ragtag army of ill-trained, poorly clothed, underfed soldiers against the armed forces of the king of England – and won our independence.
That’s not the reason I own the painting, however.
Washington was unanimously elected president and served two terms.
In 1787, he presided over the convention that drafted the American Constitution, the document that not only defined and limited the scope of government – and his own power – but also became a model and inspiration for free people everywhere.
Many historians regard Washington as “The Indispensable Man,” the crucial founding father and one of the two or three greatest presidents ever.
Yet that’s not why the picture is over my mantle either.
Washington’s greatest act, the one that made him internationally famous, was his resignation as commander in chief after the war.
Following the signing of the peace treaty and British recognition of American independence, Washington stunned the world when he surrendered his sword to Congress and retired to his farm at Mount Vernon.
Read the stories of Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon and other famous generals. Conquerors always made sure that they received political and material rewards commensurate with their achievements.
Far from giving up the powers they possessed, they generally pressed on to acquire more.
Yet Washington took nothing, asked for nothing. This was simply not the way the world worked.
Thomas Jefferson was not exaggerating when he declared in 1784, “The moderation and virtue of a single character… probably prevented this revolution from being closed, as most others have been, by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish.”
News that Washington had voluntarily relinquished power – as he would again when he resigned the presidency without asking for so much as a pension – traveled fast.
People around the world were simply agog.
No one was more disbelieving than King George III. Upon hearing that Washington – having risked everything, suffered much and defeated the most powerful army on earth – had turned the nation over to his countrymen and gone back to Mount Vernon, he declared, “If that is true, he’ll be the greatest man who ever lived.”
It was true. And that is why his image is over my mantle.