When I was growing up, George Washington was a remote figure to me. He was the stern-looking fellow on the dollar bill with the powdered wig and pursed lips. I could never figure out why his contemporaries like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and Hamilton - men who had a sizable regard for their own abilities – regarded him as the greatest of them all.
I also never bought into his modesty act whenever opportunity came calling. Every time he was asked to lead the army, or preside over the Constitutional convention, or become our first president, he'd say, "Gee, guys. I really hate to leave Mount Vernon, but if you insist, well, OK." And I'd always think, "Who does this guy think he's kidding?"
Then, one day, I visited Mount Vernon. And I realized in a flash: He wasn't kidding at all. If I lived at Mount Vernon, I'd never want to leave there, either. It's the most beautiful place I've ever seen.
The Washington Monument is across the river in the middle of the National Mall. But his real monument is Mount Vernon.
Unlike Thomas Jefferson's home, Monticello, it's not an aristocrat's house. It's a farmer's house. But it's a very elegant farmer's house.
In the parlor is the harpsichord his granddaughter Nelly Custis (after whom I named one of my cats), used to play for him. And hanging in a glass case in the main hallway, as it has ever day since 1789 – except once, when it was sent to Paris in 1989 to be part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution - is the key to the Bastille, a gift from Lafayette.
But to get to my second question, which is why all those other heavyweights looked up to him so much, the answer isn't that he beat the most powerful empire in the world with a ragtag army. Or that he basically invented the office of the presidency.
It's because having won the war, he did something that no conquering general in history – not Ceasar, not Cromwell, not Napoleon – had ever done: He went home. All the others seized power and made themselves dictators.
The date was March 15, 1783. The place: Newburgh, New York. The soldiers hadn't been paid all throughout the war, and now Congress was reneging on its promise to pay them when the fighting was over.
Two hundred of the most senior officers gathered at Newburgh to plot a coup d'etat. They'd march on Philadelphia, arrest the members of Congress, and set up a military dictatorship.
Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. They opened it, and there stood Washington himself, who asked for permission to address them.
He began to read them a letter from a Congressman, then he did something they had never seen him do before. He reached into his pocket and put on a pair of eyeglasses.
"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," he explained.
He started to walk toward the door, but by the time he got there every man in the room was sobbing like a baby. The coup d'etat was over. And our democracy was born.
Thanks, George. Happy birthday.