When studying George Washington, I was struck by his reluctance to accept the
presidential nomination. In this age of costly campaigns, hanging chads, and fights
to the bitter end, it’s hard to imagine. But perhaps Washington’s
hesitancy was understandable. In 1788 he was fifty-six years old and had already
sacrificed many years in service to his country. In 1783, after eight-and-a-half
years as commander in chief of the Continental army, he had resigned his commission.
His own affairs and the management of Mount Vernon absorbed his energies, and
he had stressed the finality of his retirement. But when unanimously elected,
he served. His formal notification of nomination to the presidency praised him
for “the proof given of patriotism, of his readiness to sacrifice domestic
separation and private enjoyment to preserve the liberty and promote the happiness
of the country.”
Washington was far more reluctant to consider serving a
second term. Historian Marcus Cunliffe writes:
He celebrated his sixtieth birthday in February 1792, and felt older than his years. He had survived serious illnesses in 1790 and 1791. He was, he complained, growing deaf; his eyesight was deteriorating; and his memory was beginning to be defective. Yet the detailed, and far from absent-minded, letters that he wrote on Sundays and sent to his agents at Mount Vernon on points of farm management, reveal that he was not so much tired of life as tired of being President.
But his colleagues felt that only he could lead at this difficult time. Thomas
Jefferson’s plea, “I cannot but hope that you can resolve to add one
or two more to the many years you have already sacrificed to the good of mankind,”
and Hamilton’s request to make “a further sacrifice, trusting that
it need not continue above a year or two more,” helped press him to service.
In a letter to his friend Henry Lee dated 1793, Washington confided that he had
decided to accept a second term of office only “after a long and painful
conflict in my own breast.” He was reelected unanimously. Again, he served
the whole term.
Washington’s life was one of service and sacrifice. And
it came at a great cost—to his health, to his marriage, to the productiveness
of Mount Vernon. Throughout our country’s history, Americans have been asked
to serve and sacrifice for the good of country and community. On September 11,
we were called once again and America answered. Many sacrificed; many served.
As the 2000 film Pay It Forward suggests, it is often difficult to pay back those
who have influenced our lives—our forefathers, our mentors, our heroes,
our friends. But we can pay it forward. We can give to the next generation. We
can care about community.
The National Portrait Gallery’s Office of Education
would like to recognize those who continue to care about community. We challenge
you to Pledge It Forward—pledge time to your schools, youth organizations,
senior centers. Pick a project, pledge your time, and make a difference. If a
high-school student tutors one child, once a week, if a 6th grader reads to an
elderly shut-in, if kids in South Texas start a small library by collecting used
books, if senior citizens plant flowers on Main Street, if teens answer a hotline,
volunteer at a shelter, or simply read to a child, we would all be stronger. E-mail
us your pledges; write to us about your projects. We’d like to recognize
Americans working for America and will feature your pictures and stories on our
website. Projects of particular merit will be published in
print in The Patriot Papers. Get creative; get busy. And together, we can build a community
Write to us at PatriotPapers@npg.si.edu!