Let me begin the first biography in this book by saying that even if
the seven great men discussed within its pages were not in chronological
order, I probably still would have started with George
Washington. When it comes to true greatness, Washington's tough to
beat. But someone's greatness can sometimes lend him an aura of such
outsized fame that we begin to think of him not as a real person but as a
cartoon superhero or as a legend. That's often the case with Washington.
As you know, he has a state named after him. (Do I need to say
which?) And he has our nation's capital city named after him; he has
a soaring obelisk monument in that city; his birthday is a national
holiday; and he has a huge bridge named after him right here in my
hometown of New York City. And if all these things aren't impressive
enough, his face is on the dollar bill! (Perhaps you already knew that.)
So who really thinks of him as an actual flesh-and-blood human being
who struggled as we all struggle and who put on his breeches one leg at
a time? That's the problem with being that famous. People often don't
really think about you as a person at all.
If you do think of him, you probably think of George Washington
as that old guy with the somewhat sour expression on the aforementioned
dollar bill. In that overfamiliar picture, sporting heavily
powdered hair and a lace-trimmed shirt, he looks almost as much like
an old woman as an old man.
But what I've discovered is that this famous portrait has given
many of us an outrageously false picture of who Washington actually
was. It presents him as an elderly man with chronic denture discomfort,
who looks none too happy for it. But the reality is completely
What if I told you that in his day, George Washington was considered
about the manliest man most people had ever seen? No kidding.
Virtually everyone who knew him or saw him seemed to say so. He
was tall and powerful. He was also both fearless and graceful. On the
field of battle, he had several horses shot out from under him; on the
dance floor, he was a much sought-after partner.
There's so much to say about Washington that it's hard to know
where to begin. For one thing, he was a man of tremendous contradictions.
For example, the man who became known as the father of
our country never fathered children himself. And he lost his own
father when he was a young boy. The man who was viewed as deeply
honorable actually told some real whoppers when he was a young
man, despite Parson Weems's fictitious episode by the cherry tree: "I
cannot tell a lie." More than anyone else, he is responsible for freeing
American colonists from the greatest military power on earth—the
British Empire—and yet he held some three hundred black men,
women, and children in bondage at Mount Vernon.
But here's the biggest contradiction: Washington was an extremely
ambitious young man who worked hard to achieve fame, glory, land,
and riches—yet at a pivotal moment in American history, he did
something so selfless that it's difficult to fully fathom. It's principally
because of this one thing that he's included in this book.
So what did he do? In a nutshell, he voluntarily gave up incredible
power. When you know the details of his sacrifice, it's hard to believe
that he did what he did of his own free will. And yet he did it. The
temptation not to surrender all that power must have been extraordinary.
There were many good reasons not to surrender it, but history
records that he somehow did. Somehow he made an impossibly grand
sacrifice—and in doing so he dramatically changed the history of the
world. Had Washington not been willing to do it, America as we know
it almost certainly would not exist. That's not hyperbole.
This is why contemporary memorials to Washington describe him
as an American Moses, as someone loaned to Americans from God.
He was the right man for his time—arguably the only man who could
have successfully birthed the American Experiment. If you wonder
whether one person's actions can matter, and if you wonder whether
character matters, you needn't look any further than the story of
George Washington. So here it is.
* * *
George Washington was born on February 22, 1732, in what is
now Westmoreland County, Virginia, the first son of Mary Ball
Washington and tobacco farmer Augustine Washington. George had
two older half-brothers, Augustine and Lawrence, and one half sister,
Jane, who were children from his father's first marriage. George also
had five full younger siblings: Samuel, Elizabeth, John, Charles, and
Augustine and Lawrence were sent to England for their educations,
but George's father died when George was just eleven, making
an English education for him financially impossible. He would regret
this deficit in his education throughout his long life. George's brother
Lawrence, who was fourteen years older, became a father figure to
him, someone whose advice the young George would listen to. In 1751,
Lawrence took nineteen-year-old George to Barbados, where Lawrence
hoped to be cured of tuberculosis. Alas, George contracted smallpox
on this trip. Although the disease was dangerous, it actually turned
out to be a hugely fortunate occurrence; George was then inoculated
from the disease at an early age, thereby preventing him from future
attacks of it when he was a general. During the Revolutionary War,
large numbers of soldiers died of disease rather than enemy attacks.
As a boy growing into manhood, George frequently visited
Lawrence's home on the Potomac River, which was named Mount
Vernon. He also frequently visited Belvoir, owned by Lawrence's in-laws.
As one biographer put it, at Mount Vernon and Belvoir, "George
discovered a world that he had never known." In particular, Belvoir
"was a grand structure, an architectural showcase gracefully adorned
with exquisite molding and rich paneling and decorated tastefully
with furniture and accessories from England." George "was stirred
by the people" in these homes, "people of influence," adults "who
were well-read and thoughtful, men who were accustomed to wielding
Young George determined to turn himself into one of them—especially
someone like Lawrence, who was not only a distinguished
war hero but also adjutant general of Virginia, a member of the
Virginia legislature, the House of Burgesses, and by marriage, a member
of the socially prominent Fairfax family. George threw himself
into learning proper etiquette, reading serious books, dressing properly,
and improving his character. He also eventually shot up to be
roughly six-foot-three, this making him much taller than most of his
contemporaries and giving him the heroic, statuesque appearance of
a born commander.
Given his future career, it's certainly ironic that George's mother
fought his efforts, at age fourteen, to become a commissioned officer
in the Royal Navy. She thought such a life would be too harsh for her
son, so George decided to learn to become a surveyor. He was fiercely
intent on acquiring property and wealth, and a surveying career
could lead to quick riches in land and money. By the time he turned
twenty, George owned some twenty-five hundred acres of Virginia's
But that same year—1752—tragedy struck. George's beloved
brother Lawrence lost his battle with tuberculosis. Lawrence's wife and
daughter also died within a few years. This meant that George would
ultimately inherit Mount Vernon—an estate he would ambitiously
enlarge and improve during the next four decades.
When he was twenty-one, George once again turned his attention
toward the possibility of a military career. Through the interve