GEORGE WASHINGTON’S BIRTHDAY
February 22, 1892
Companions: The story of Washington is contained in one short and familiar sentence. He was the Father of his Country. These few words give, and amply give his character and his achievements—what he was and what he did. They tell not only what in fact he personally was but tell also the place he held in the minds and hearts of those who knew him well. They assure us that the famous eulogium was strictly and fully true—that he was indeed “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
Of Washington’s history, life and character no new thing can be said. The whole world knows all about him. Lord Brougham is often quoted. He recorded the final judgment when he declared that “Washington was the greatest man of his own or of any age.” Thomas Jefferson said, “I think I knew General Washington intimately and thoroughly…and it may be truly said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance.”
There is an accepted test by which great statesmen, generals and rulers at last are judged. Men’s deeds live after them. Results determine. The question is what did they do that benefited their country or mankind? Tried by this standard the fame of Washington is secure. With every passing year the work he did appears higher and better. More and more its unexpected and priceless value and magnitude prove to be of worldwide and beneficent influence. These results are his fitting memorial, and must be considered with special satisfaction and gratitude by all whose precious privilege it was to bear a part in the great conflict which saved and enlarged them.
The qualities—the traits of character for which Washington was distinguished were all solid, lasting and of transcendent worth. He had a massive understanding, and unerring judgment, and iron purpose, unmatched courage moral and physical, a sense of honor of the purest tome, a conscience, clear and controlling, inflexible justice and an unselfish love of country that was the master passion of his soul. His advantages of person and bearing united to his mental and moral strength made him the typical hero of America’s golden age—a figure and a character unsurpassed in dignity and majesty in the annals of our race. Let what fortune come that might, to the divine cause of his country Washington so rose above the accidents of time and chance that Destiny was bound to place him high on the roll of the world’s most admired and revered patriots and martyrs, and this without regard to victory of defeat in the sublime aims of his illustrious life.
The infant people thinly scattered for a thousand miles along the Atlantic margin of the new and splendid continent, just entering into a struggle for existence with the most formidable power on earth, and sorely in need of a leader worthy of their cause, gave to Washington the opportunity for which his lofty faculties were waiting. Under his steady hand the righteous cause of Independence was finally won. The new People took their place in the family of the Nations and which Washington as their guiding spirit, warded off, as by a miracle, the threatening perils that thronged around them as they entered upon the stage of national action. Thus this first experiment of a republic, on a theatre of wide extent—of continental area, began its career in the face of a world in which its friends were few, obscure, and feeble, and its foes numerous, powerful, confident and unrelenting. The name and fame of Washington were so indentified with this experiment that they were linked in adamant to its future whatever that future might be. True—his sublime virtues placed him on a pedestal from which he could never be dethroned. But if free institutions fail here, that calamity, common to all mankind, would cloud his grand career for after generations.
Washington lived long enough to see, under his skillful and prudent care, the foundation of a continental Republic wisely laid. The new structure was, however, still incomplete. All that had been done, and all that was hoped for, depended on what was to come. In the judgment of the governments and the rulers of the world the work of Washington was as yet but an experiment. They still, for the most part, doubted, derided, hated this upstart government in the New World. Nevertheless, during almost three-fourths of a century the United States steadily gained in population, wealth, intelligence and prestige, with no more strokes of ill fortune than are found in the common allotment of Providence to nations. As the end of that period approached a time of difficulty, of peril and of trial was plainly at hand. Indeed it did seem as if the day of our destiny was about to dawn. Unfriendly observers hailed it as the day of our doom. No sooner had the cloud burst, than the Secretary of State of Great Britain made haste to send through the palaces of Europe that “the great republic was in its agony—that the republic was no more—that a head stone was all that remained due by the law of the nations to the late Union.” In truth the peril that threatened our national life cannot be over stated. We need not dwell upon it. Our danger was no greater—our task no harder than those which were encountered by Washington and his compatriots. We had the supreme inspiration of their example and of their faith that “God Omnipotent reigneth.” The giants in our path were Slaver, States rights, and foreign intervention. Our friends and our reliance were love of the Union, love of liberty, and love of Country. Our triumph reared the column which represents to all the world the two great ideas—Union and Liberty—and the two great men—Washington and Lincoln—the noble gifts of God to America, and of America to Mankind.
“Let it rise! Let it rise till it meets the Sun in his coming; let the earliest light of the morning gild it, and parting day linger and play on its summit.”