GW Community Honors Washington's Legacy

Events on campus, at Mount Vernon Estate celebrate a leader who understood people.

Steven Knapp
GW President Steven Knapp places a wreath by George Washington's tomb during Saturday's ceremony at the Mount Vernon Estate.
February 22, 2014

By James Irwin

A career military man who valued order and discipline, George Washington's strongest leadership quality may have been that he was a soldier who could empathize with people, said Edward Lengel, editor of the Papers of George Washington and history professor at the University of Virginia.

“Washington had many identities, and a fundamental identity for him is as a combat veteran,” said Dr. Lengel, who spoke Thursday night about Washington’s career as a soldier, officer and commander-in-chief at the third annual George Washington Lecture. “His knowledge of warfare truly shaped him personally and underpinned his military and political leadership.”

The philosophy and implementation of Washington’s leadership were recurring themes last week, as the George Washington University celebrated its namesake's 282nd birthday with events on campus and at Washington's Mount Vernon Estate. Alumni gatherings around the world began Feb. 17 and continue through March 1.

Thursday night’s event featured remarks from Dr. Lengel, GW President Steven Knapp and Doug Bradburn, founding director of the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

The library, located across the street from the Mount Vernon Estate, houses an extensive collection of periodicals, pamphlets, newspapers and Washington’s correspondence. The facility opened last fall (a session of GW History Professor Denver Brunsman’s class, “George Washington and His World” was the library’s first educational event). The library represents one of Washington’s final goals: a central location for his military, civil and private papers.

“He writes that his papers ‘are voluminous and may be interesting,’” Dr. Bradburn said. “Classic, understated Washington. This is a man who spent 16 years as commander-in-chief of the fledgling United States — eight as leader of the Army and eight in charge as the first president. Of course, they were interesting papers, and they were indeed voluminous.”

Those papers provide a doorway into Washington’s world. Washington, Dr. Lengel said, was an idealist who understood what people needed from their leaders, a talent he developed early in his military career.

“When he experiences the French and Indian War he develops a sense of what matters to individuals,” Dr. Lengel said. “When soldiers are sitting around the campfire, what’s most important to them is, ‘Where is the next meal coming from? Where are we going to sleep tonight?’ One of the last words we’d use to describe Washington is ‘empathy’ but he develops empathy to the greatest degree in his capacity to connect with people.”

Washington was observant and persistent, Dr. Lengel said. As a young officer, Washington noticed foundational cracks in the British military machine — a breakdown of discipline due to officers ignoring the basic needs of soldiers and failing to secure resources to provide for their troops. As commanding general of the Continental Army, Washington took steps to avoid the pitfalls that plagued the British 20 years earlier through battlefield tactics and provisions.

“There is a connection with his soldiers he has achieved by understanding who they are, what’s important to them — food, water, shelter, clothing,” Dr. Lengel said. “He’s been there. That allows him to provide his soldiers with what they need, and it forms that bond between him and them.”

Washington’s leadership manifested in many ways, Dr. Lengel said. He had an astute sense of self-image and knew his shortcomings. Washington also knew how to socialize. During the Revolutionary War, he helped solidify an alliance with France through friendship and wine.

“I was joking once that what really won the Revolutionary War was Washington’s love of good wine,” Dr. Lengel said. “Major General Marquis de Chastellux, who served as translator between Washington and Rochambeau, loved a good glass of wine. Washington and Chastellux hit it off right away.”

On Saturday, members of the GW community traveled to Mount Vernon, where they participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at Washington’s tomb and toured the mansion.

GW bussed university community members from the Foggy Bottom and Mount Vernon campuses to the Saturday ceremony. Dr. Knapp provided a short keynote speech.

“This event is the culmination of a celebration of the memory of George Washington that began with a bonfire on campus on Feb. 7,” Dr. Knapp said. “And this solemn event, as a conclusion of that celebration, really does connect our university to the memory of the person whose vision is really responsible for its existence.”