Possibly the greatest political scientist of all time, Seymour Martin Lipset, published an outstanding essay in 1998 about George Washington. Here are a couple excerpts:
* George Washington is an underestimated figure. Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson,
and Benjamin Franklin are seen as real people with lives and emotions; Washington is a
painting on the wall. Yet I believe that he is the most important single figure in American history. Without him, the Revolution might have failed. This is not because of his military ability; he lost many of the battles he fought, and only French intervention brought victory. His first enormous achievement was to build and maintain the morale of the Continental Army's troops and the loyalty of its officers under depressing conditions. Later, during the Newburgh crisis of 1783, he secured their obedience to civilian authority at a time when they were sorely tempted to do otherwise. He exemplified the ultimate in self-sacrificing heroism.
Another George, King George III of England, who was Washington's enemy,
acknowledged his significance. The king asked the painter Jonathan Trumbull, freshly
arrived from America, what he thought Washington would do when the war ended. "Go
back to his farm," Trumbull replied. "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the
world," rejoined the king. And that is what Washington did, twice--first when the war
ended, and later after his second term as president of the United States.
* The relevance of individual greatness to history has been much debated. In ironic
contrast to the theoretical determinism of Marxism, the history of twentieth-century
communist regimes underlines the importance of the leader. It may be strongly argued
that if Lenin had not been able to return to Russia in April 1917, or if he had been killed
or imprisoned, the October Revolution would never have occurred. Prior to Lenin's
arrival at the Finland Station (courtesy of the German General Staff) and his bold
proposal that the Bolsheviks plan to seize power, no left-wing factional leader had
favored such a move. Everyone adhered instead to the Marxist assumption that the next stage of Russia's development had to be a bourgeois revolution, with capitalism and industrialization preceding any move toward "workers' power." Only Trotsky thought otherwise, but he was not one of the Bolsheviks and had no influence on them or any other organized faction. Lenin, despite objections from other Bolshevik leaders, carried the day because of his leadership position and ability to dominate in organization and debate. Hence one may conclude: No Lenin, no Russian Revolution.
One cannot say, with comparable conviction and evidence: No Washington, no American democratic republic. The United States would in all probability have eventually become a democracy, even had Washington not been on the scene. Elections predated independence in the British colonies, and as historian William Chambers noted, the new nation possessed many of the other "prerequisites for full democratic participation and practice." Yet Washington played a necessary role because of the charisma that flowed from his personality and his military leadership (which was something different from his generalship in a narrower sense). He inspired incredible trust and facilitated--as no one else alive at the time probably could have--the formation of the culture and institutions needed for a stable, legitimate, and effective democratic system. Washington, in short, was one of those "great men" without whom history would be very different.