Washington at Dorchester Heights 1806
Museum of Fine Arts Boston
Already an accomplished and respected soldier, George Washington began what would become the most significant and life-changing chapter of his life, as General and Commander-in-Chief in the American Revolutionary War, and then first President of the United States of America, at the age of 44. While 44 might sound young to us, average life expectancy in 18th-century America averaged a mere 36 years, lending a whole new meaning to Nathan Hale’s declaration that he regretted he had but one life to give for his country—he truly lamented how few years he had to devote to the revolutionary cause. In light of this, it’s inspiring to note that many of the most significant figures of the Revolutionary War spent their latest years engaged in exciting, meaningful and transformational work—fighting for independence, founding a new country, and forming an unprecedented system of government based on what most of the world considered radical ideas of democracy.
In his twilight years, George Washington, rather than retiring to a quiet corner of the Colonies, brought his wisdom, experience, and authoritative presence to a revolutionary cause. He often faced bleak prognoses, as his army suffered dwindling supplies, illness, and brutal weather. But his commitment to independence and democracy, and his belief in the wisdom and tools for success that were hard-won, brought American patriots to the side of victory. He was known to say “Discipline is the soul of an army. It makes small numbers formidable; procures success to the weak, and esteem to all.” Washington brought the discipline, stamina, and leadership to the American army, and inspired an underdog in world power to find its strength and secure independence. After half a decade of warfare, and having secured victory for the Colonies, Washington resigned his commission and would soon become the first President of the United States of America, a post he would hold through all but the last two years of his life.
It’s often easy to look back on history and see it as having been a clear path forward, but it is rarely the case. Committing himself to the fight for independence, and then to leading the new nation as its first president, was an act of Washington’s conviction and ideals that was visionary. He surmised as much in a letter to one of his friends,
“In our progress towards political happiness my station is new; and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground […] There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent […] If after all my humble but faithful endeavours to advance the felicity of my Country & Mankind; I may endulge a hope that my labours have not been altogether without success, it will be the only real compensation I can receive in the closing Scenes of life.”
Having recently celebrated our nation’s Independence Day, I have reflected on and think it remarkable how many of the people who brought their energy, drive, and wisdom to such an innovative and original vision, were in their golden years. As wahves, I hope you feel pride and inspiration that your own nation’s founders were in this way like you: people with the energy, rich experience, and desire to engage and innovate through every chapter of life; people eager to bring their skills and wisdom toward the pursuit of a meaningful and happy life.