George Washington and the Failure of Success

George Washington had several rivals jockeying for his position as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army. Horatio Gates and Charles Lee, in particular, were two generals that worked to undermine Washington’s reputation and authority throughout the war.

They felt empowered to do so coming off respective military successes: Gates with a resounding victory at Saratoga forcing the surrender of over 5,000 British troops, and Lee stopping a British advance in the south. Both of these men staked their reputations on these successes, and let the pride go to their heads.

And both of them ended up eventually failing spectacularly, with Gates retreating from combat 180 miles before sending word of defeat, and Lee unable to stop his retreating men after a disastrous offensive. Their reputations lived by the sword, and so they were destined to be tarnished by the sword.

Washington himself had his share of success, but also of failure. The latter was the only real reason he was vulnerable to political attacks, and he rode them out with patience.

Whenever Washington was successful, however, he was always quick to praise others, to recognize that he did not do it alone. His letters are full of this type of correspondence. You get the picture of a man of confidence and humility.

While it’s possible this show of magnanimity and humility was a deliberate act for posterity (for Washington knew he would be seen as an important player on the stage of history), I think we should give him the benefit of the doubt. A man who repeatedly turned his back on the trappings of power, rejected an easy kingship, risked his own life and wealth for an unsure cause, and was adamant about civilian control of the military is probably not a man that harbored a secret, grandiose view of himself.

Eventually, Washington was left standing without any rivals. Other men’s successes failed them, but Washington plodded along, always giving credit to others, almost never tooting his own horn, and worried more about the mundane logistics of keeping an inexperienced, ill-equipped army together through harsh winters.

There is a lesson in this for all of us. To desire to be the last to take credit for a success (Matthew 20:16). To give praise liberally where it is warranted. To ensure we keep our pride in check and never think we are more clever than we think we are. Let others praise you (Luke 14:10).

If you claim all the success for yourself, you will be left alone to handle the inevitable failure. It should not be a lonely path to the top.

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