While George Washington is one of the most recognizable names in American history, his legend incorporates some fiction along with fact. To Americans today, Washington is widely known as the first president, as well as the man whose face graces the one-dollar bill and the quarter coin. These facts are easily corroborated by wallets and purses everywhere, but some legends are not as easily verifiable.
One of the most popular legends associated with Washington is how he supposedly chopped down a cherry tree and then couldn't tell a lie. While Washington may have chopped down cherry trees in his Virginia plantation, it is unlikely that the extraction of a single tree carried with it enough importance to motivate a significant life change in Washington's life. What the legend of the tree symbolizes, however, is Washington's accidental, haphazard rise from colonial citizen to army general to national president. Indeed, Washington, one of the earliest American heroes, was, in his mind, a reluctant and unlikely one.
Washington entered the world stage at a tumultuous time. Britain had grown into an empire that included North America, the West Indies, India, and even South America. It was the global superpower, but many of its colonies were restless. None was more restless than America. Throughout the colonies, but especially in New England, people grew frustrated with Britain. It was too far away and generally neglected America. When British rulers did pay attention to America it was usually to get more taxes out of the colonies, something the Americans fiercely resented. The Revolutionary War was not inevitable: most Americans were proud to be British subjects and enjoyed their historic rights as Britons. Yet Britain consistently mistreated the colonies, more out of incompetence than greed or malice.
Washington was a perfect example of an American who began his life very proud to be British but eventually came to support independence. His way of life–as a plantation owner in Virginia–resembled British aristocracy in its wealth and power, yet this power stopped at Virginia's borders. Politicians in London had very little concern for Virginians' needs or the needs of any other Americans. George Washington was born into a system that was socially stratified. He had no reason to wish for it to be different or for the government to be more democratic. Yet rich and poor alike suffered under British rule–it was this suffering, as much as anything else, that united the Americans against the British.
This era also saw the beginnings of the Enlightenment, a time when thinkers began to question the social order and assert that all humans are essentially equal. Many of Washington's contemporaries picked up on these ideas. Though Washington never expressed his philosophy in any clear way, his actions reflect a gradual absorption of these ideas. Like many other Americans, Washington started to take the ideas of liberty and equality seriously. He wondered about the implications of these ideas–sometimes hopefully, sometimes with fear.
Washington fully believed in the ideals of virtue and honor. He was raised in a society where these were the most important things a man could have, and they were attained through serving society in a heroic way. Throughout his life he tried, at times painfully hard, to live up to these ideals in every action. This may partly explain why he seems so distant; we simply can't imagine a world in which this would be possible. Of course it wasn't possible in Washington's world either–he never reconciled his ownership of slaves with his ideas of equality, for example–but Washington's attempt to be a completely virtuous man, to embody the ideals of his time, is still amazing.
When Washington left office in 1796, the United States was a prosperous and growing country with a stable government that would become the model for most democratic revolutions after it. We take this for granted now; we praise the Founders for their wisdom in creating the Constitution and at times wish such wise people lived in our own time. We forget, however, that just as now Americans couldn't agree on how to govern themselves. They couldn't agree on how to deal with other nations, such as the France and Britain, and with other groups, such as the Indians. Disagreements over those questions were even stronger then than they are now. It required a lot of patience and a lot of effort to keep the country together. More than anyone else, Washington gave it that effort.