President’s Day began as a way to honor one man: America’s first president George Washington. What started as a celebration of Washington’s birthday has since evolved to include all presidents. Washington was renowned during his life and after his death largely because of his qualities of leadership and wisdom.
Washington had much wisdom to give about retirement that still holds true today. You might be surprised to know Washington’s own retirement journey was delayed with some twists and turns along the way.
Yes, our very own inaugural president had to come out of retirement multiple times. He first retired for about sixteen years “in 1759 when he gave up his military career and began the life of a planter at Mount Vernon.”1
He returned to military life in 1774 as the Continental army’s commander-in-chief until December 1783, when “he resigned his commission and returned to Mount Vernon. This, his second retirement, lasted for a little over five years, ending in 1789 with his departure for New York to become president.”1 He was president for eight years, after which he retired in 1797 until his death in 1799.
Imagine having to retire not once, not twice, but three times!
But retirement for Washington wasn’t the same as our modern ideas of retirement. Washington’s retirement meant “leaving the public stage and going home to attend to one’s business,” in which case his was managing Mount Vernon’s plantation.1 There was no beachside retirement in Washington’s future!
And yet Washington loved this kind of retirement. He looked forward to going home and attending to his business. To Colonel Henry Lee he wrote, “Notwithstanding my advanced season of life, my increasing fondness for agricultural amusements, and my growing love of retirement, augment and confirm my decided predilection for the character of a private citizen.”2
Washington enjoyed his retirement, yet it was active and full of purpose. “Each day Washington would mount his horse and ride around to each part of his property for about six hours, checking on projects.”3 After a day of work, he would return to prepare for dinner, usually with guests. “Some of the visitors [were] family members, but a lot of them [were] complete strangers who would show up with a letter of introduction from a mutual friend.”3
Before his death at age 67, it was important to Washington that he take care of his affairs, but also ensure his property was well cared for and his heirs had what they needed to succeed. Upon Washington’s death in 1799, “he divided his estate between 23 heirs. . . By dividing his land. . . Washington wanted to ensure his heirs would become self-reliant.”3
As for Washington’s legacy, he owned 123 slaves for his plantation, something he “felt uneasy about. . . referring to his ownership of people as ‘repugnantly to his own feelings.’”3 Shortly after his death, Washington’s wife, Martha, freed all of his enslaved people “per her husband’s wishes.”3 Though the release of his slaves is something he should’ve performed well before his death, Washington’s enduring legacy upon his death was no doubt one of freedom, equality, and love for all people.
Washington had much wisdom to offer regarding retirement. His was a retirement filled with purpose, activity, and caring for his estate and legacy. Though retirement probably looked different than he wanted it to be, he put his retirement aside in service to others and to his country.
Most of all, Washington never lost hope, even in retirement. In looking toward the future for generations of Americans to come, Washington wrote, “It shall be my part to hope for the best; as to see this Country happy whilst I am gliding down the stream of life in tranquil retirement is so much the wish of my Soul, that nothing on this side Elysium can be placed in competition with it.”3
Source 2: https://www.history.com/news/george-washington-resignation-circular-letter
Source 3: https://www.history.com/news/george-washington-final-years-death-mount-vernon