The toughest decisions in life are those we must make with inadequate information. This takes faith. To prefer knowledge to faith as a guiding principle is normal. Who wouldn’t? But some of life’s most crucial decisions must be made while vital knowledge is unavailable.
Few knew this better than General George Washington (1732 – 1799), a leader well known for his hunger for intelligence that could make wartime decisions easier. In the fall of 1776, with information low and risk high, his indecision after losses on Long Island, in New York, and at White Plains, led to the added losses of Forts Washington and Lee—severe blows to the cause. Washington was harshly criticized in hindsight, even by some close to his confidence. He handled the criticism gracefully and wisely retained officers that other leaders might have been tempted to blame. He saw a bigger picture.
Washington was the practical founder. While the other founding fathers were signing founding documents, Washington was in the field training an army in the courage, stamina and skill required to stand behind the words on those documents. In his book “1776,” David McCullough suggested that Washington was well taught by experience. His greatness was not in avoiding failures but in learning from them. His wisdom and determination after failure was exceptional. This indispensable quality was rooted in his faith in providence, a word our Founders often personified with a capital “P”. Washington knew that Providence out-ranked him and could be trusted when risks were high and failure loomed large. Some trust can be rooted in practical experience but the future remains, like fate, up for grabs. McCullough surmised that Washington was not a great strategist or orator, but he never forgot what was at stake and he never gave up. Though a great pragmatist, he never lost his faith in Providence.
Washington’s army seldom numbered more than 15,000 (usually much less) and his ability to keep his troops together under dire circumstances is what set him apart. Only a man of his stature and dignity could have commanded the respect of his men under the conditions they faced. Great trust is inspired when a leader displays confidence and optimism rooted in faith through the worst of times. When his men see him making the same sacrifices he asks them to make, they stand by him in support. Washington was long known for being fearless under fire and for his ability to see things as they were rather than as he wished them to be. He had an indispensable grasp on the vast difference between faith and wishful thinking.
The incredible twists of fate sustained by Washington and his men have enthralled many a reader of Revolutionary War history. The good General had a capacity for keeping an even keel through it all. He did not regard twists of fate as random accidents. He believed there was a plan and he trusted the ultimate Planner. Accordingly, his men trusted him with the unknown when much was unknown. They did know well, however, that Washington sustained more defeats in battle than victories. Yet, they persevered to win the war. Faith is contagious.
After winning a nearly impossible victory in 1781 against the greatest military power on earth, Washington resigned his commission rather than ride his popularity to great personal power. In 1787, he presided at the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, bringing high credibility to the process. In 1789, he was elected as our nation’s first President. Amid chaotic times, he garnered so much prestige that calls to for him to rule for life were frequent and loud. But again, in 1797, he gave up power and returned to his farm, refusing to trade hard-earned liberty for the personal prestige of a crown. For over 2,000 years since Cincinnatus returned to his plow, no leader in similar circumstances had willingly done what Washington did. He symbolized the American spirit at its best with his personal virtue, renowned integrity, undying perseverance and unselfish sacrifice. Even King George III called his nemesis “the most distinguished man alive.”
Washington’s biographer, James Flexner, called him the “indispensable man” of US history. Washington himself might disagree. In his Farewell Address in 1796, this lifelong Episcopalian churchman told us what he considered truly indispensable:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”