Size may not be everything, but George Washington's monument in the capital city named after him simply towers over everyone else's. Several other presidents—Lincoln, Jefferson, Roosevelt—share the honor of memorialization on the National Mall, but none surpass George Washington's in scale or majesty. Washington's great obelisk is still the biggest in DC, and for a time it was even the biggest in the world. It quite literally overshadows the competition.1
Our monumental architecture only confirms what we already know: as far as the United States is concerned, George Washington has always been number one. His birthday is a national holiday—and has been celebrated as such since the late eighteenth century. He's the only member of the revolutionary generation to give his name to a state. His portrait appears on the quarter, the dollar, and in classrooms all across America. Abroad, his last name is practically synonymous with the USA. George Washington isn't just one of the Founding Fathers; he is the Founding Father. He is the father of his country.
His accomplishments appear to have earned him the right to the title. He led an underfunded, undertrained volunteer army of misfits against the most powerful military force in the western world and won, securing American independence in the process. Then, after voluntarily surrendering power, he returned from retirement to legitimize the Constitutional Convention, giving the newly independent Unites States a shot at organizing an effective national government. As if that weren't enough, for his last act he became the new country's first president, governing ably enough to establish the viability of what has since become the longest-lasting democratic government in modern history. Even his peers, the other Founding Fathers, acknowledged Washington's unique and supreme importance. He was, as Alexander Hamilton put it, the only one among them to be "indispensable."2
But what appears obvious to us now seems more surprising in its context. Why should Washington alone have been the indispensable one? After all, the other Founding Fathers were, in various ways, more impressive. John Adams was more passionate, Thomas Jefferson was better educated, and James Madison was more politically savvy. Even Alexander Hamilton, who was so sure that Washington was the most important, might have been a more likely candidate for indispensability. Hamilton was brilliant—much more so than Washington. Indeed, Washington himself thought so: he had Hamilton draft his political speeches and kept him close by his side throughout his political life. So what was it about GW? How did he come to be the indispensable one?