King George III on General George Washington: Greatest man in the world?

Anyone with a passing understanding of the American Revolution can identify two titular figures in the world-altering American struggle against colonial rule: George Washington, the Commanding General of the Continental Army; and King George III, King of Great Britain.

Most would also intuit mutual dislike between the two figures. However, there is considerable evidence that King George III held high regard for the talisman of the American cause. Benjamin West, an American artist, recounted to English artist Joseph Farington his direct conversation with King George III in the wake of the war. When King George asked West what Washington would do if the United States achieved independence, he replied that Washington would retire. King George responded that if that were the case, George Washington would be the greatest man in the world.

In fact, retirement is exactly what George Washington did after the Revolution. Washington emulated Cincinnatus, an early Roman figure who famously relinquished power after being appointed dictator, and retired to Mount Vernon. It is difficult to overstate how astonishing this was to eighteenth-century leaders around the world, who would have expected George Washington to seize power at the end of the war.

George Washington was, of course, later coaxed into assuming the United States presidency, becoming the first president of the fledgling republic. Washington sought to serve only one term, and even contemplated resigning partway into his first term, but was convinced to run for re-election. After serving two full terms, George Washington once again stunned the world by declining to seek a third term. He retired to Mount Vernon once again, where he would die a few years later.

“Greatest man in the world” is an extraordinary statement, particularly when it comes from the lips of Washington’s “enemy.” But in an eighteenth-century world of monarchs, Washington’s surrender of power marked a radical departure from the norms and expectations throughout human history.