A Lesson From ‘the Greatest Man in the World’
The greatest man in the world. That’s how King George iii of England described George Washington after hearing that he would not attempt to become the king of America after the Revolutionary War.
The king’s feelings were not unusual. In leading the amateur American Army to victory over the mighty British Empire, Washington had become the preeminent American celebrity of his time. He had sustained an American Army that was underpaid, often short on ammunition, and many times shoeless for eight years. He led the victorious siege on Yorktown, which resulted in the surrender of over 7,000 British soldiers and precipitated the treaty that granted American freedom. Everywhere he went after the war, Washington was thronged by exhilarated crowds hailing him as the savior of America.
With Washington’s new popularity came a torrent of visitors to his home. In 18th-century rural America, where inns were rare, it was considered common hospitality to feed and house those who showed up at your door. For George and Martha Washington, this meant housing legions of veterans and curious visitors who wanted to meet the man who led them to liberty. The stream of visitors was so constant that the Washingtons were rarely alone. In one diary entry two years after the war, Washington wrote, “Dined with only Mrs. Washington, which I believe is the first instance of it since my retirement.”
The visitors expected to hear thrilling tales of Washington’s bravery and genius on the battlefield. And if anyone had experiences to brag about, it was Washington. But in this respect, Washington disappointed his guests. He simply did not like to talk about his accomplishments. Nelly Custis, Mrs. Washington’s granddaughter from her first marriage, was living with them at the time. She said of Washington: “I never heard him relate a single act of his life during the war.”
One visitor, a French journalist, was amazed after probing Washington for details of his experience in the war. “His modesty is astonishing,” wrote the journalist. “He speaks of the American war and of his victories as of things in which he had no direction.”
This was Washington’s customary behavior: He did not boast. When elected commander in chief of the Continental Army, he didn’t talk about his accomplishments in prior battles; rather, he professed “great distress” at the thought that he was not qualified for the job. He did the same when later elected president: Despite being greeted with parades by near-worshiping crowds in every city on the way to the capital, Washington did not lay out grand promises of what he would accomplish, or refer with pride to past victories. Instead, he honestly and humbly spoke of his own inferiority and lack of experience.
Washington’s consistent refusal to brag reflected a sincere humility. It also fulfilled a wise proverb: “Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth; a stranger, and not thine own lips” (Proverbs 27:2).
It can be all too easy to brag about our accomplishments, to make sure everyone knows when we have done something good. Though that desire is natural and understandable, that doesn’t mean it is right. What if no one seems to notice the good things you do? Realize: This happened to Washington when he was younger, too. In his early military career, despite bravery and sound judgment, Washington was not promoted as he deserved to be. Because of this he felt severely discouraged at times. But he didn’t resort to braggadocio. He simply kept working hard.
We don’t remember George Washington today for anything he said about himself—we recognize him for what he did, and for what others have said of him for hundreds of years. Learn a lesson from America’s first president: Focus on what you do, and let your actions—and the words of others—speak for you.