On George Washington

“February 22 marks the …birthday of George Washington. His stature has only increased with the years. His public life was characterized by complete unselfishness. Indifferent to his own fortunes, his only concern was for his country. He needed no pretense and no art. He was simply and naturally great.” He was, in short, “the personification of judgment and character” — Calvin Coolidge, February 20, 1931.

Tomorrow marks the two-hundred eighty-first anniversary of President Washington’s birthday. To Coolidge, the first President was not without his mistakes, as with any man, but he remains worthy of our esteem and emulation for not only his life of service but also his impeccable integrity. As the former President looked back on the example of Washington in the early months of 1931, he may have recalled the remarkable precedent his forbear set by laying down the power of his office after only two terms. Washington could have held the Presidency for life or passed it to his heirs and yet he laid it down with characteristic humility. Coolidge adhered to that same selfless demonstration in 1929. As he describes the attributes of Washington, however, he reminds the reader of not only what made the first President truly great but also of those qualities the thirtieth President prized and practiced in his own life. One instantly thinks of Coolidge when the absence of pretense is commended. There were no ostentatious displays with Coolidge. What you saw is who he was without conceit or facade. He had no patience for those who put on airs. He would even make the bejeweled “social queens” of Washington wait in the reception lines while he “took a break” from shaking hands. Humble simplicity defined him in public just as it did in private. Coolidge bequeaths a legacy not unlike Washington’s to those who sincerely honor character above politics and service above self-importance.

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