George Washington’s Flaws Bring Him Down to Earth, to Real Life

Probably what has deterred me from more curiosity about George Washington is that he is so often portrayed as a plaster saint rather than a real live human with feet of clay. One cannot really appreciate his greatness without first recognizing his perceived faults. History for Dummies has a good summary of Washington’s character flaws:

“He wasn’t a military genius, and he lost a lot more than he won on the battlefield. In fact, his greatest military gifts were in organizing retreats and avoiding devastating losses. He had no discernable sense of humor and was a snob when it came to mixing with what he considered the lower classes.

“He also had a terrible temper. At one point, he was so angry with the lack of discipline and acts of cowardice in the American army that he unsuccessfully asked Congress to increase the allowable number of lashes for punishing soldiers from 39 to 500. Once he was so angry at a subordinate, he broke his personal rule against swearing.”

…He wasn’t particularly handsome — his teeth were bad, and he wasn’t proud of his hippopotamus ivory and gold dentures, so he seldom smiled….

His bosses in Congress were often indecisive, quarrelsome, and indifferent….

…He was incredibly lucky: In one battle, Washington rode unexpectedly into a group of British soldiers, most of whom fired at him at short range. They all missed.

The First of Men: A Life of George Washington, by John Ferling notes:

Certain number of his letters as a young man read as if they were written by “a pompous martinet and a whining, petulant brat.”

Aaron Burr found him “a boring, colorless person.”

As president, he often believed the worst about individual officials. Ferling concludes that Washington’s personality and temperament were those of “a self-centered and self-absorbed man, one who since youth had exhibited a fragile self-esteem.”


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