The legend of the man is sheltered these days behind high fences of respect. Were the real Washington on hand today, that might not be the case, and therein may lie a lesson. By our modern measures, George Washington did not read the right books: he relished how-to-do-it texts, with their new ideas on the use of manure, turning soil and animal husbandry. He did not delve very far into art, philosophy or science. Nor did he speak foreign languages (Thomas Jefferson spoke or read five). Washington never traveled to Europe, while Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Jefferson all spent years there. Aloof and remote, meticulous in his wardrobe, he was not one of the boys, and he was never an accomplished public speaker.
Washington’s military achievements are admired for their perseverance rather than their brilliance. The Battle of Trenton might have been as important a conflict as this nation ever won. His victory brought the Revolution back to life: the colonies dared hope again for independence, France began to look with more favor on the American struggle, and Britain began to lose heart. But the battle itself was technically a shambles.
The first President sometimes looked on his 22 years of public service as a kind of prison sentence that took him away from his Virginia estate — Washington accumulated nearly 100,000 acres of land in his last years and was judged one of the wealthiest men in the nation. His favorite recreation was fox hunting, and he was a slaveholder, though, unlike Jefferson, he set his more than 125 slaves free in his will.
George Washington was sensible and wise. He was not the most informed or imaginative of men. But he understood himself and this nation-to-be. His heart and mind were shaped by his family, his land, his community and the small events that touched him every day. He had the tolerance of a landsman, the faith that comes with witnessing the changing seasons year in and year out. Optimism, perseverance, patience and an eager view of the distant horizon have always been a gift of the earth to those who stayed close to it.
This entry is excerpted from the new TIME book The 100 Most Influential People of All Time, which profiles spiritual icons, leaders, explorers, visionaries and cultural titans throughout human history. Available wherever books are sold and at time.com/100peoplebook
Next Thomas Jefferson