Award-winning author and historian Gordon Wood gave a lecture titled “Why was George Washington a Great Man?” Thursday, Feb. 28, at the University of West Florida.
Wood won the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1993 for “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” and was one of three winners of the 1970 Bancroft Prize for his book, “The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787.” He was also awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2011 by President Barack Obama, after nearly five decades of work.
The lecture focused on Washington’s life and legacy. Wood said Washington was a “disinterested patriot,” an American leader who was impartial and wanted no personal gain from his time as president.
Washington’s impartiality was shown when he rewrote his will in the summer of 1799, despite opposition from his wife and contemporaries. In the refreshed draft of his will, Washington called for all of his slaves to be freed, educated and cared for after his death.
All seats were filled by 6 p.m. in room 152 of Building 51. Wood stood on a podium, reminding the audience that Washington’s birthday had just passed six days earlier. He said the country only remembers Feb. 22 as a holiday as opposed to remembering it for being Washington’s birthday. According to Wood, the first president’s “awesome superiority has been lost.”
Wood acknowledged Washington as a classical hero and a “thoroughly 18th century figure.” This founding father was “very tall by contemporary standards, and was heavily built and a superb athlete,” according to an article written by Wood about Washington in 1992.
Wood spoke on the loss of civility in civilization, mentioning Washington’s adoration for the “Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior In Company and Conversation.” It was the “behavior beyond the battlefield that established Washington,” he said.
According to Wood, Washington’s greatest act was his resignation as commander in chief on Dec. 23, 1783, Writers, leaders and several others praised him for this courageous act. Washington called his resignation his legacy.
Alfred Cuzan, distinguished university professor of the department of government, asked Wood how an individual today could emulate Washington.
“We can learn from his interest in being disinterested,” Wood said.
Wood said that the only people who come close to Washington’s persona are sports umpires and referees. In order to do their jobs well, they must be objective in judgment of their sport.
“I thought it was a wonderful lecture,” Cuzan said. “I think it really captured the essence of the man and his times. He was a man of his times, and he was trying to live up to some ideals. In those days, there’s a persona that people aspired to be and act like. Washington wanted to be a great man from a very young age.”
Some students attended to learn more about their respective majors and reaffirm their ideas about American history.
“I think it was pretty accurate,” Kristin Parrish, a junior history major, said. “I’ve read some documents, all secondary sources on the subject. I appreciate Washington and his disinterest even more.”
Along with being an author and historian, Wood is also professor emeritus of history at Brown University. Wood has published more than 75 works.
Wood served in the United States Air Force as a foreign services officer for three years after he graduated summa cum laude from Tufts University in 1955. He then earned a master’s and a doctorate degree from Harvard University.