Greatness in Little Things

Washington's Birthday Address by E. B. Bagby 

He that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and he 
that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city. — Prov. 16: 32. 


THE Mecca toward which all visitors to the Capital
City wend their way is Mount Vernon, the home
of Washington. Every day throngs board the steamer
for this trip down the Potomac, and as they leave the
dock, the tip of the “Washington Monument may be
seen peeping above the intervening houses and trees.
As the city recedes in the distance its sky-line seems to
fade and diminish, while the tall shaft stands out in
larger and bolder outline, until at last it dominates
the whole landscape. It is thus a fitting memorial of
George Washington, who did not in the first days of
our republic seem to tower pre-eminently above his
contemporaries, but whose figure as we pass down the
stream of time constantly grows greater, until now it
fills the whole horizon of our early history — imposing,
commanding, majestic.

George Washington stands high in the things the
world counts great. He was a member of a wealthy
Virginia family of noble lineage. His courage was
proven upon many a hard-fought field of battle. He said
of the battle of Great Meadows, ”I heard the bullets
whistle, and believe me there is something charming
in the sound. ‘ ‘ When only twenty-two. Colonel Fairfax
could write him from Williamsburg, ”Your health

and fortune are the toast of every table.” Patrick
Henry declared that, “for solid information and sound
judgment, he was unquestionably the greatest man on
the floor of the Continental Congress.” As a strategist,
he is ranked with Marlborough and Napoleon. As
President of the new republic, he showed himself as
wise in administration as he had been brave and
skillful in battle. Fisher Ames said, “Washington’s
contribution to our country was great beyond count,
but his contribution to humanity and civilization was
much greater.”

But a man’s true worth is determined not alone
by the great things of his life, but by the little things
as well; not so much by what is seen of him in public,
as by what he is in private; not merely by the extra-
ordinary powers he possesses, but also by his use of
those powers; not by the service he commands, but
by the service he renders. Woodrow “Wilson has given
a fine insight into Washington’s character in these
words: “The soldierly young planter gave those who
knew him best the impression of a singular restraint
and self-command. They deemed him deeply passion-
ate, and yet could never remember to have seen him
in a passion. No doubt he had given way to bursts
of passion often enough in camp, and upon the march,
when inefficiency, disobedience or cowardice angered
him hotly and of a sudden. There were stories to be
heard of men who had reason to remember how terrible
he could be in his wrath. But he had learned, in the
very heat and discipline of such scenes, how he must
curb and guard himself against surprise, and it was
no doubt trials of self-command made in his youth
that had given him the fine self-poise men noted in
him now. ‘ ‘

 

The light which Washington shed to bless the world
afar was not a dim or flickering light within the
circle of the home. Commanding others, he was always
subject to the command of his good, bnt somewhat
stern, mother. “Well known is the story of his abandon-
ment of his plan to go to sea on a tobacco ship when
he saw the distress his departure was bringing to his
widowed mother. After the victory of Yorktown his
first thought was of his mother, and his first errand a
visit to Fredericksburg to pay her his tribute of affec-
tion. The news of his arrival was announced by a
servant who told her that ”Marse George” had put
up at the tavern. “Go, and tell George to come here
instantly” she commanded. And the son was not slow
in coming. In 1873, when he had settled again at
Mount Vernon, he made his last visit to his mother,
who was then in her eighty-third year. When the son
promised to come again as soon as public business
could be disposed of, she said: ”You will see me no
more. I shall not be long in this world. I trust God
and am prepared for a better. But, go, George, and
fulfill the high destiny which Heaven appears to have
assigned you. Go, my son, and may Heaven and your
mother’s blessing always be with you.”

Not less thoughtful and gracious was the great
man to his wife and adopted children. Says his biog-
rapher: ”Those who saw him at Mount Vernon in his
later days thought him gentler with little children
than Mrs. Washington even, and remembered how he
had always shown a like love and tenderness for them,
going oftentimes out of his way to warn them of dan-
ger, with a kindly pat on the head when he saw them
watching the soldiers in the war days. Now all at
Mount Vernon looked forward to the evening. That

was the children’s hour. He had written sweet Nellie
Custis a careful letter of advice upon love matters,
half grave, half playful, in the midst of the Presi-
dency, when the troubles with England were beginning
to darken; she had always found him a comrade, and
had loved him with an intimacy few could know. Now
she was to be married, to his own sister’s son, and
upon his birthday. She begged him to wear his
‘grand embroidered uniform’; but he shook his head
and donned instead the worn buff and blue that had
seen real campaigns. Then the delighted girl told him,
with her arm about his neck, that she loved him better
in that.”

The estimate of our hero is enhanced when we read
that the doctrine of justice and kindness which
breathes through all of his papers of state was prac-
ticed in the conduct of his personal affairs. He urged
the Government to pension and reward the soldiers of
the Revolution. Black pensioners, not a few, were
maintained upon his own plantation. ” Bishop, his
old body-servant, lived like a retired gentleman in his
cottage, and Nelson, the good sorrel who had borne him
so bravely in the field till Yorktown, now went for-
ever unsaddled, free in his own pasture.”

Washington’s greatness was evidenced, too, in his
attention to the small details of life. He had the
genius for taking infinite pains. ”He made careful
copies of legal and mercantile papers and just as care-
fully he studied the structure of his fowling-piece,
the bridle for his colts, his saddle girth and the best
ways of mounting his horse. In everything he did
he showed the careful precision of the perfect marks-
man.” This habit of doing his best under all circum-
stances and of looking upon nothing as little or trifling

became potent in making him the masterful man of
his times.

The deeds of Washington are not more admirable
than the spirit which animated them. Early he had
set before him Pallas ‘s gift: ” Self -reverence, self-
knowledge, self -control ; these three alone lead life to
sovereign power. And because right is right, to fol-
low right were wisdom in the scorn of consequence.”
When the second Continental Congress met, the air
was vibrant with the expectation of war. Thither
came Washington clad in his old regimental uniform,
to signify that he was a soldier ready for duty. Be-
fore this he had written his brother Augustine: “It
is my full intention to devote my life and fortune in
the cause we are engaged in, if needful.”

Few public men ever had to encounter such op-
position, misrepresentation and calumny as assailed
him. Yet none of these things moved him. ”I am
gliding down the stream of life,” he writes, ”and
wish that my remaining days may be undisturbed and
tranquil; and, conscious of my integrity, I would will-
ingly hope that nothing would occur tending to give
me anxiety; but should anything present itself in
this or any other problem, I shall never undertake the
painful task of recrimination, nor do I know that I
should ever enter upon my justification. My temper
leads me to peace and harmony with all men, and it
is peculiarly my wish to avoid any feuds or dissen-
sions with those who are embarked in the same great
national interests with myself, as every difference of
this kind must in its consequences be very injurious.

When the suggestion was made that he be crowned
king and thus end the unhappy state into which the

country had fallen, he spurned the offer with stinging
rebuke: ”I am much at loss to conceive what part of
my conduct could have given encouragement to an
address which to me seems big with the greatest mis-
chief that can befall my country”

But is not the very greatness of Washington dis-
couraging? We who would follow him do not possess
his talents nor do we have his opportunities. But
while we may not mount with him to the peaks of
heroic achievement, we may still walk with him upon
the plains of humble and faithful service. After all,
are not the little things of life the important things?
I would rather have a wife who cooks the things I
like in the way I like them, gets the children off to
school on time, and keeps the house in order, than to
have one who is a genius, but impractical. I would
rather work for an employer who controls his temper
than for one who controls the vote of the city. I
would rather have a church-member who is dependa-
ble fifty-two Sundays in the year and the days be-
tween, than to have one who is brilliant, but spasmodic
and erratic. I enjoy the light of a sky-rocket on an
occasional celebration, but for constancy I prefer a
kerosene lamp or even a tallow candle. The wise
Creator made one Niagara do for a whole continent.
It would be very inconvenient to have such a cata-
ract on every farm. Better are the brooks that water
the fields and sing their way to the sea.

The favorite geyser in Yellowstone Park is “Old
Faithful. ” ”The Monarch,” ”The Wonderful,”
”The Lioness,” are more spectacular, but are uncer-
tain. The play of ”Old Faithful” can be calculated
to the minute. In the congregation the pastor’s fa-
vorite is not Elder Monarch nor Deacon Wonderful

nor Sister Lioness, but Brother Faithful. The best
work in the world is done, not by people of uncommon
ability, but by people of uncommon faithfulness. All
honor to the military genius of Washington, but the
Revolutionary War was won as well by the patient
militia who watched at Dorchester Heights, shivered
at Valley Forge, and tramped the weary miles to
Yorktown.

We may not, like Washington, win a great war
and save a nation, but we can learn to rule our spirit.
Our passions are incipient virtues. When brought un-
der control they minister to life. As Fuller says:
”Anger is one of the sinews of the soul; he that lacks
it hath a maimed mind.” It is a sad commentary
upon our human nature that the possession of this
”sinew of the soul’ is regarded as an element of
weakness rather than of strength. When a man says,
“My knife has temper,” he is envied; when he says,
“My wife has temper,” he is pitied. George Matheson
confesses, “There are times when I do well to be an-
gry, but I have mistaken the times.” Aristotle de-
clares, “Men are angry on wrong grounds, or with
the wrong people, or in a wrong way, or for too long
a time.” The mastery of passion is a harder fight
for some than for others. When Stephen H. Tyng
was rebuked by a young man for losing his temper,
he replied, “Young man, I control more temper in
fifteen minutes than you ever will in a lifetime.”

Seeing the restraint of an old Quaker woman under
great provocation, a niece said to her, “Auntie, I
should think you would be boiling.” “I am boiling,
my dear,” she answered, “but without steam.” “He
that is slow to anger is better than the mighty; and
he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.”

 

A man is rising to true greatness when lie finds
that his life is ruled by love instead of passion. And
there is no better field for the exercise of this grace
than the home. It is in the home that the seamy side
of life is revealed. If wood could talk, what tales the
kicked chairs and slammed doors might tell on us.
The home may not be beautiful like Mount Vernon,
but it may be made the abode of love — love that is
courtesy in little things, love that beareth all things,
love that never fails.

But the love that flies no farther than one’s own
home or even one’s own country is a feeble and broken-
winged affection. There are many cursed with what
Emerson calls ”the township mind.” Preachers even,
whose concern reaches no farther than the world they
survey from the top of their church-tower. No lesson
of the past few years has come more forcibly than
that we can no longer live in isolation, but are citi-
zens of the world. As Mr. Glenn Frank said in the
Century Magazine: ”We have heard of a shot fired in
New England and heard around the world. To-day
almost any act, vote or policy in government or in-
dustry registers an effect across the continent, affects
the lives and fortunes of men and women in the
Orient, or gives concern to foreign office or bourse in
half a dozen European capitals.” Never was the ad-
vice of “Washington’s Farewell Address more pertinent
than at present: “Observe good faith and justice to-
ward all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with
all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct, and
can it be that good policy does not equally enjoin it?
It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and, at no
distant day, a great nation, to give to mankind the
magnanimous and novel example of a people always

guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who
can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the
fruits of such a plan would richly repay any tem-
porary advantages which might be lost by a steady
adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not
connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its
virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by
every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas!
is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

Separation in time does not impair unity of ser-
vice. The artisans who put on the capstone of the
Cologne Cathedral were coworkers with those who,
fifteen hundred years before, laid the foundation
stones. We are the compatriots of Washington when
we do all in our power to realize his ideals, when we
seek by voice and influence to promote the righteous-
ness that alone exalts a nation and put down the sin
which ever brings reproach.

Nor shall we lose our reward. Our names may not
be writ large in history. No monument may mark our
last resting-place. But the righteous Judge will not
forget us. He declares there is to be a reversal of
human judgment. The last will be first and the first
last. The private will march in ahead of the general,
the servant will have a higher seat than the master,
the subject will have a richer crown than the king.
Honors denied now will be given then. The victorious
captain who led the charge has received his reward;
but the high private in the rear rank, who marched
and fought, marked time and did sentinel duty, has
his reward waiting.

In the city of Washington, opposite the Bureau of
Engraving and Printing, for many years stood a
low, unsightly building of the Agricultural Department

which has figured more in the development of the
wealth of the nation than the structure across the
way where Uncle Sam’s money is printed. In this
building one day there was received from a corre-
spondent in South America a clipping from an orange-
tree, whose fruit was declared to be deliciously sweet
and well flavored. The slip was grafted, and in the
course of experiment the navel or seedless orange was
developed. The scientists of the Agricultural Depart-
ment thought it was a freak, but the type persisted.
Now the fruit may be found on nearly every table
of the country and has added hundreds of millions
to the wealth of the producers. In the meantime the
letter from the lady who sent the clipping was lost
and her identity has never been revealed. Perhaps she
lies in some Southern grave, and above her the green
leaves wave in the sunlight and upon her grave the
sweet orange blossoms fall, but she sleeps on uncon-
scious of what she has wrought.

So, amid the quiet, nameless workers of the world,
bending over the sick, soothing the sorrowing, lifting
up the fallen, are the real heroes and heroines who will
some day be identified by the King on the throne, to
whom He will say: ”Because you were faithful in the
little things, I will make you rulers over the great
things. Enter into the joy of your Lord”.