DG MARTIN COLUMN: Washington’s failures — steppingstones to success

Published 2:00 pm Monday, January 22, 2024

Is it on your February calendar?

D.G. Martin

George Washington’s birthday. Feb. 22. Officially the third Monday in February is when we celebrate Presidents Day and honor Washington, Abraham Lincoln, who was born on Feb. 12, and all the other presidents whenever they were born.

Here are some thoughts about Washington that I shared in an earlier column.

When I was growing up Washington’s birthday was a major holiday. Its replacement, Presidents’ Day, just does not have the same personal connection. There are no longer cherry pies or axes to help us remember the legends of his honesty and character.

Washington’s name is still everywhere. In a general way, we remember that he was great. Our nation’s capital is named after him. His face is on dollar bills and quarters. He has been made an important character in the Broadway production, “Hamilton.”

Like some people’s god, Washington is worshiped in an institutional way, but his real story is not known very well.

That is a shame. His leadership skills, military successes, common sense, wisdom and willingness to sacrifice merit our admiration.
This country’s government works thanks to his management of the Constitutional Convention. His even-handed administration bound this country together in its first days.

He was a genuine hero.

George Washington’s many successes are important to remember. We should be grateful for them. They should inspire us to higher standards of service to our country.

But I am not thinking so much of those successes today. More important to me now are his failures and disappointments. There were many. In romance. In his military service. In politics.

Miss Betsy Fauntleroy rejected him twice. She was not the only one who broke Washington’s heart. He also fell in love with Sally Fairfax, the wife of his friend, and he suffered because she could only be a good friend.

He began his military career in embarrassment. In the frontier country claimed by both the French and the British before the French and Indian War, Washington was put in charge of a force of British Colonials. He had a fort built to defend his troops — in a creek bottom surrounded on three sides by higher ground. It was a stupid mistake. Soon the French had him surrounded. He surrendered after a short siege and was tricked into signing a confession that his forces had “assassinated” a French officer who had been killed in an earlier skirmish. When this became known, he was demoted and lost his command.

In politics, he started out as a poor public speaker and never got much better. His first election to the Virginia House of Burgesses in 1758 came only after he treated voters to rum, wine, brandy, beer and “cider royal.”

Why think about these failures and disappointments? Why not focus on Washington’s accomplishments?

Why? Because Washington’s successes were built on the foundations of these disappointments and failures. The lesson of his life should not be that he was a perfect person who never failed at anything.

All of us, Washington included, have terrible disappointments in romance, in our work and in our attempts to lead others and persuade them to do the right thing.

What made Washington special was his strength in getting past those tough times.

His broken heart in romance did not stop him from finding a happy marriage to Martha. His early military reverses did not prevent him from becoming a great general. He worked around his political deficiencies and became our country’s most successful political leader.

What we should remember about George Washington is that he overcame his disappointments.

So, the next time somebody breaks your heart, or you make a bad mistake in your career, or you have problems persuading people to do the right thing, or when there is some other roadblock in your path, just remember: it happened to George Washington, too.

Think about Washington these next days and learn from him to move on from your failures. Follow Washington’s example and make your failures steppingstones to greater accomplishments.

D.G. Martin, a retired lawyer, served as UNC-System’s vice president for public affairs and hosted PBS-NC’s North Carolina Bookwatch.