A Lesson About Duty from General George Washington

TOPICS: George Washington, Editor’s Perspective, Revolutionary War

by Katie Lebert, Communications Specialist
June 4, 2016

Recently, someone contacted the Washington Papers for help with locating a specific document. They were looking for a letter in which George Washington explained why patriotism was not enough to win the Revolutionary War. Fair payment for the men who fought was also needed:

“We must take the passions of Men, as nature has given them, and those principles as a guide, which are generally the rule of action. I do not mean to exclude altogether the idea of patriotism. I know it exists, and I know it has done much in the present contest. But I will venture to assert, that a great and lasting War can never be supported on this principle alone—It must be aided by a prospect of interest or some reward. For a time it may, of itself, push men to action—to bear much—to encounter difficulties; but it will not endure unassisted by interest.”1

If the notion of self-interested soldiers did not strike his correspondent as elegant, it was because Washington’s thoughts on the subject were influenced by prudent practicality: Washington knew he could not win the war on faith alone.2

Yet, when reading these words, I was still yearning for that notion of greatness, that sentiment which outstrips any one individual’s desires and self-interest. It was not until I viewed a recently released documentary on George Washington that I realized this commitment to practicality was only one part of the General’s leadership style.

On May 20, Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson and I had the privilege to attend the premiere of The First American, a documentary produced by Gingrich Productions. Premiering a little more than a week before Memorial Day, the documentary thoughtfully renewed that sentiment I was looking for—the sense of purposeful duty.

Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson (left center) and Communications Specialist Katie Lebert (right center) at the donor appreciation luncheon for The First American, which was hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich (also pictured).
Research Editor Alicia K. Anderson and Communications Specialist Katie Lebert at the donor appreciation luncheon for The First American, which was hosted by Newt and Callista Gingrich. From left to right, the photo includes Newt Gingrich, Alicia K. Anderson, Katie Lebert, Callista Gingrich, and Kevin Knoblock, director and producer of The First American.

The First American primarily focused on Washington’s role in the Revolutionary War, encouraging reflection on Washington’s extraordinary persistence in fighting and leading despite hardships and failures.3 But it was one specific instance that provoked my deeper appreciation for Washington as a leader who could balance noble ideals and everyday practicality.

This instance took place closer to the end of the war—in fact, a couple years following the Battle of Yorktown—when Washington was forced to confront the conspiracy at Newburgh that sought “to use the threat of a military coup as a political weapon to gain passage of a revenue bill.”4 Washington had prepared a speech for the occasion, which he brought folded in his pocket.5 It was the words that were unprepared, however, that seemingly moved his men the most.

As the story goes, Washington paused before beginning his remarks. Pulling out a pair of spectacles, he confessed, “‘Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.’”6 Colonel David Cobb, in his written record of the speech, affirmed that “[t]his little address, with the mode and manner of delivering it, drew tears from [many] of the officers.”7 With these words, Washington quietly exemplified the sacrifice entailed in these noble ideals; it was a service that could never fully be repaid.

Despite tirelessly fighting for pay for his men, Washington knew Congress would never have enough money to keep the promises made to these soldiers.8 So instead, he led by example, committing himself to the role of general, a position with which he had some reservations. In doing so, he provided the sustenance the nation and its soldiers needed to hold out just a little longer.

Today, I am struck by how Washington endures as a symbol of perseverance. More importantly, through his thoughtful leadership, I better understand the sacrifices, both tangible and intangible, we ask of our servicemen and women today—and what is given in return.

As we marked Memorial Day last week, and as we approach the anniversary of D-Day on June 6, I find that this opportunity to understand Washington more deeply as a military leader has led me to a deeper appreciation of one’s commitment to the military.

“But I am under no such apprehensions, a Country rescued by their arms from impending ruin, will never leave unpaid the debt of gratitude.”9


1. George Washington to John Bannister, April 21, 1778. http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0525
2. In another letter, George Washington pithily challenges Jonathan Trumbull, Sr.’s, faith in the Revolutionary cause: “To trust altogether in the justice of our Cause, without our own utmost exertions would be tempting Providence, and that you may judge of our situation I give you the state of our Army.” http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0462
3. One of my favorite examples of such commitment was the Battle of Kip’s Bay, of which The First American (Gingrich Productions, 2016) does a captivating and inspiring portrayal, around the 37-minute mark.
4. Ellis, Joseph. His Excellency. (Knopf, 2004), 141.
5. You can read George Washington’s speech to the Officers of the Army (March 15, 1783) here: http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-10840
6. Fitzpatrick, John C., ed., Writings of Washington, Volume 26. (Washington, DC.: 1938), 222.
7. Ibid.
8. For an excellent passage on Washington’s understanding of this predicament, see His Excellency, 140-1.
9. George Washington to the President of Congress, March 18, 1783, Writings, Vol. 26. 231-2.

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