As I walked around Washington D.C., I began to notice how George Washington continues to be venerated. It wasn’t because of his great victories. Or that he was our first president. It was because of his greatest accomplishment. When faced with the prospect of unlimited power, fame, and wealth, he chose to resign. He walked away because he believed in the power of the people more than his own power.
I walked into the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.
I was overwhelmed by the majesty and sheer size of it all. From the floor to the ceiling is 180 feet or roughly eighteen stories. There are statues of famous people inside the circular walls. Each statue represents the original thirteen colonies, plus the bust of Martin Luther King Jr.
Behind the statues are eight huge paintings of historical events. One of these is of a well-dressed man standing ramrod straight in a room filled with people. He is handing a piece of paper to someone sitting behind a desk. That well-dressed man is George Washington.
Over 100 feet above me, there was a 360-degree painting entitled the Frieze of American History. This painting took seventy-six years to complete. The original Italian artist died, and then his assistant died after painting the remainder of the original artist’s design.
But there was a miscalculation.
The painting came up 31 feet short of covering the rotunda. Another artist took over and submitted a design to Congress to complete the painting. His design was rejected, so he quit. Finally finished by the last artist, an American, in 1953, it is an amazing painting which looks eerily 3-D.
Finally, there is the most famous fresco of all in the dome of the rotunda, The Apotheosis of Washington. It was painted by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi. He started right after the Civil War, and it took him eleven months to complete. The dot-gov website says, “The figures, up to 15 feet tall, were painted to be intelligible from close up as well as from 180 feet below.”
When the U.S. Capitol tour guide told me about this painting, he added, “That is George Washington in the center of that fresco. He is surrounded on each side by the gods of Liberty and Victory/Fame. Then there are multitudes of figures/gods representing the thirteen original states and the arts and sciences. The word ‘apotheosis’ literally means the raising of a person to the rank of a god, the glorification of a person as an ideal.”
Then the tour guide had us look back to the painting of George Washington handing the piece of paper to the man behind the desk. I learned the painting is titled “General George Washington Resigning His Commission.”
He continued, “That painting is of the greatest significance. This is George Washington resigning his commission as General of the Armies of America. ‘So what?’ you might think.”
Then he explained, “At the end of the Revolutionary War, the whole country held George Washington up as a god. Because of his leadership, courage, and determination, the people realized their freedom from the king of England. They were now their own independent nation. And George Washington was their leader.
“With all this power and recognition given to him by the people, he resigned his commission. He realized he could be king. He could lead this new nation as a military dictatorship. But this was not his dream for America. America belonged to the people. The citizens had the power over the military. This is one of the principles of democracy. He went back to being a farmer and an American citizen just like them.”
He had it all and gave it all up.
Six years later, the citizens of the United States voted for George Washington to become the first president of our United States. He served two terms of four years each and again went back to being a farmer where he died two years later.
This is George Washington. He is the greatest servant-leader of our county. This is his example to us. He believed in his fellow citizens. And in Washington D.C. to this day, he is held up as our ideal.
This is who we are as Americans.