Washington’s self-sacrifice: A message kids need to hear

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I’ve had the opportunity to speak to a few thousand kids in schools all over Indiana over the past few weeks about history, writing, the American Revolution, and most importantly, my all-time favorite founding father, George Washington. I get to share with these kids what has drawn me to love Washington, and what made him such an incredible leader: The self-sacrifice he was willing to make for others and for a cause bigger than himself. More than ever, kids need to understand what it means to give sacrificially.

As part of my school presentations, I show kids the picture of Washington on the dollar bill, and ask them who it is. Everyone gets it right. Then I show them this picture and ask them to guess who it is. I usually get guesses ranging from John Hancock to King George. Nearly every time, I have to tell the students that this is a painting of George Washington, and that during the Revolution he looked much more like this guy than the old guy on the dollar bill.

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1772 portrait of Washington in his Virginia Regiment uniform

Washington was just 43-years-old when he took command of the Continental Army in 1775. He was extremely fit, tall, graceful, athletic, and was reportedly a good dancer. Not only that, but he was extremely wealthy.  Washington owned about 7,600 acres of land in Virginia, had a beautiful home at Mount Vernon, and in today’s dollars was worth roughly $580,000,000.00. Kids are always amazed to learn that Washington was relatively young and extremely rich when he decided to leave his home to take command over the rag-tag New England army that had gathered around Boston. I then ask a question most kids have never thought about: What happens to Washington if England wins the war? Usually silence fills the room as kids ponder the reality of what Washington was willing to sacrifice to fight for freedom and liberty. If England wins, George Washington would have been charged with treason against the King, undoubtedly found guilty, and would have been hanged. When Washington accepted command, he had to know that not only would he have to leave behind a life of luxury at Mount Vernon, but he would also be put to death by hanging if the colonists lost the war.

People followed Washington because they all knew how much he was willing to give up for the cause.  In his Pulitzer Prize winning book 1776, David McCullough writes:

1776

To be sure, Washington had his faults.  He could be indecisive, many times his strategic military plans were misguided, and he lacked formal education. He more than made up for his flaws, by his ability to lead others from his heart. Washington was able to lead so well because he gave something up of himself to do so. He was genuine and vulnerable and his soldiers loved him for it.

Thankfully, we won the war and Washington wasn’t convicted of treason and hanged. He was able to keep an ever changing group of army recruits together over a period of eight years. Then Washington did something that turned the world upside down. He resigned his commission as Commander in Chief of the Army, giving up his power. Over the course of human history nearly every military leader similar to Washington took the power they had gained through military conquest and used it to rise to power as a king or dictator.

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John Trumbull’s painting of General Washington resigning his commision

I sometimes ask kids what they would do in that situation. Imagine that they had just spent eight long years away from home leading men into battle, enduring the elements of the weather, being questioned by Congress, and constantly battling a lack of supplies. For me, I tend to think that I would have not resigned, and instead felt like I deserved the power that I had earned. If they’re honest, most kids think the same. However, Washington didn’t keep his power; instead he gave it up.

I tell kids, I want to be like Washington, and I hope they do to. I think some kids get this idea that we can learn important life changing lessons from history.  After my talks I’m even hopeful that a few kids grasp the idea that life isn’t just about them. Living by giving yourself up for others is what makes true leaders, just like George Washington.

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