February 22, 2018: 286th Birthday of George Washington

This is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birthday of Washington. We are met to celebrate this day. Washington’s is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name no eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.

Abraham Lincoln, February 22, 1842





It won’t be that long, only fourteen years, until it will be three centuries since the birth of the Father of our Country.  Washington, as one might expect, paid little attention to his birthdays, not taking note of them in his diaries.  However, even during his lifetime the date was being observed with celebrations by the American people.  On his last birthday in 1799, when he turned 67,  the Washington family observed the marriage of his step granddaughter, Eleanor Parke, called Nellie, Custis.  After the death of her father, who died of camp fever contracted during the siege of Yorktown in 1781, she and her brother George Washington Parke Custis, with the consent of their mother who was raising the five other children she and her late husband had, lived with the Washingtons and were informally adopted by them.  Throughout her life she regarded herself as the custodian of her adopted father’s memory.  Much of what we know about the personal life of the Washingtons comes from her correspondence with biographers seeking information about Washington.

I suspect that the topic of mortality may have crossed Washington’s mind on his last birthday.  His father had lived only until 49 and Washington had a bout of his recurrent malaria in 1798 which had only tardily responded to quinine.  Washington had been enjoying his retirement from public life, but he was beginning to feel his years.  However, he had no fears of death and approached it with a sense of humor.  Martha Washington in 1797 in a letter to Elizabeth Willing Powel, made the following observation from her husband:  “I am now, by desire of the General to add a few words on his behalf; which he desires may be expressed in the terms following, that is to say, that despairing of hearing what may be said of him, if he should really go off in an Apoplectic, or any other fit, (for he thinks all fits that issue in death, are worse than a love fit, a fit of laughter, and many other kinds which he could name); he is glad to hear beforehand what will be said of him on that occasion; conceiving that nothing extra: will happen between this and then to make a change in his character for better, or for worse.”

More to explorer


  1. We scarcely realize our good fortune in having a man of Washington’s character as our first president. The first presidents of most countries to emerge from the revolutionary era 1776-1815 became dictators, as eventually had happened among the Romans. Our Constitution (along with our English legal heritage) gets part of the credit, but the Constitution was new when Washington came to power and had he wished to become king (or Emperor) things could have fallen out very differently. Yet unlike most other leaders ancient or modern he handled power modestly and walked away when he felt he had had enough. His example obviated term limits on the presidency until FDR. We won’t see his like again because frankly we expect a much more activist leader than either Washington would have wished or the Founding Fathers would have tolerated. If any American president ever becomes a dictator, it will be to popular acclaim.

  2. I was at a conference years ago, and had the chance to talk to a historian from S. America (Argentina IIRC). We chatted about this and that, and came around to our country. He asked if I knew what so many envied about America. I didn’t know. Wealth, freedom, football? Nope. Our Founding Fathers. As he said, revolutions and uprisings are a dime a dozen throughout history, but usually they fail because either the revolutionaries are no better than what they’re fighting, or they lack the skill to make things work. The Founding Fathers did both: had the skills to make it work, and the integrity to keep their promises the best they could. He singled out Washington in particular, and how lucky the US was to have him as our first president. I fear that is something a growing number of youngsters are not hearing.

  3. I like that story, Dave. It also explains the problem with a lot of “revolutionaries” today. They get so fixated on tearing it all down, they never realize that you have to build things back up afterwards. I think this fear over how hard and how much work it takes to rebuild is why the revolution always ends up looking for more and more targets.

    Truly, the greatest gift God gives any of us is a wise father. Whether one in our individual lives, or ones at the start of a nation.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: