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George Washington - A Profile in Virtue
Civic and Republican Virtue were once the expectation and duty of an American citizen. It is an unfortunate reality that such ideals are generally lost in modern American society.
In today’s political debates, there are many who assert that the processes and protections that secure liberty for America’s inhabitants have come to stand in the way of the development of both public and private virtue. But rarely, in such debates, is consideration given to what virtue looks like. Ironically, many of those who claim to be champions of virtue turn to political figures and politicians who fail to embody virtue by any definition of the world.
So, today, I thought it would be useful to discuss three important aspects of virtue that are largely absent from the political sphere of today, as exemplified by a man we consider to be the Father of the Republic—George Washington.
George Washington became our nation's first Commander-In-Chief, perhaps, by way of a single gesture of fidelity and brotherhood, which shocked the delegates of the Second Continental Congress. While the war effort had already begun, beginning with the battles at Lexington and Concord and continuing with the Battles of Bunker Hill and the Siege of Boston, the large majority of delegates to the Second Continental Congress still saw their respective colonies as independent entities and the war as one between the British Empire and the colony of Massachusetts, not necessarily implying a state of war between Britain and all of the colonies. However, George Washington possessed a different perspective.
(For an excellent dramatization of George Washington's unusual perspective, please go here. The main portion I will be discussing begins at 0:30 and concludes at 1:20)
If you haven’t the time to watch the video, I will paraphrase the circumstances and what was said. George Washington had chosen to wear a military uniform to the Second Continental Congress, a singular demonstration of his view that all the colonies were indeed at war with Britain, and not just Massachusetts (Many of the delegates held commissions in local militias as well and yet did not wear a military uniform as Washington chose to).
As an even further demonstration of his views, Washington wore a black armband, at the time a symbol of mourning. Upon greeting Washington, John Adams asked if he was in mourning, to which Washington replied (in the dramatization), "For Massachusetts, Mr. Adams. An attack made on one of our sister colonies is an attack made on all of us." Later in the conversation, Adams comments on Washington's generosity, to which Washington responds, "Not generosity, Mr. Adams—duty."
It was this singular sense of duty to the American colonies as a whole, that led John Adams to shock the Congress by putting Washington's name forward to become Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Forces. Washington was a Virginian, and most had expected Adams to nominate a fellow Massachusetts man, as the New England colonies and the Southern Colonies had experienced much distress with each other in the course of the Congress.
We might infer that George Washington would maintain a similar outlook in modern times—that he would not be predisposed to view states as red states or blue states, coastal or heartland enclaves—and indeed might have even viewed the difference between states and territories as nominal in relating to the duty he felt for his fellow American citizens. This quality of Washington's is a virtue completely lost upon the minds of many of our current fellow citizens, whose agendas and narratives compel them to view those of differing opinions or differing situations as less worthy of affection, duty, or fidelity.
George Washington could perhaps be considered the most humble, unassuming, and socially modest of all the founding fathers. Not to overburden the reader with videos (I must admit the HBO mini-series John Adams is a favorite of mine), but once again, Washington’s response to being nominated for leadership of the Continental Congress is an excellent demonstration (Beginning at 29.34 of Episode 2).
In the dramatization, Washington replies to his nomination that it would be “his humble duty to serve” and then removes himself from the chamber as the Congress deliberated on his nomination. When Adams delivers the news to Washington that he has been successfully appointed as General, Washington replies, “I am truly sensible of the high honor the Congress has done me. But I tell you now, I do not think myself equal to the command I am honored with.”
Throughout the whole of George Washington's military and political career, he remained measured and humble in assuming his duties and responsibilities. He often felt to rely upon providence to sustain him in his weaknesses and was quick to cite divine intervention in his success and victories. It was often only his subordinates who assigned Washington any glory for his actions.
Washington carried such an aversion for pride and avarice, that even at the worst periods of personal popularity, he refused to indulge in actions of vanity and, at times, would even refuse to defend himself and his actions against assaults upon his character and leadership quality, believing his forbearance to be in service of the greater good (One such occasion was in the worst moments of the Revolutionary War, when officers openly criticized Washington and some even began calling for his replacement by Charles Lee or Horatio Gates. Washington was afraid a direct confrontation of such dissidence would alert the French to the acute situation of the Continental Army and erase the diplomatic gains of the victories at Trenton and Princeton, so he remained silent despite the damage such insults were having on his reputation).
There can be no doubt Washington would highly disapprove of the prideful and vain manner in which many politicians, public figures, and general citizens now conduct themselves, especially when many actions and statements attempt to build personal prestige at the expense of others, and sometimes at the cost of the greater good of the republic. I would be hard-pressed to name any one specific modern instance of the kind of patient forbearance and humble service once provided by George Washington.
In Washington's time, the one great virtue for which he was known both within the borders of the American republic and across the civilized world was his character. As Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army, he refused payment and drew no salary. As the first President of the United States, he asked simply to be called "Mr. President" and would not stand for any other vain affection to be used for the office he held. And, most importantly, no man in recorded history had ever been vested with the level of authority and power with which Washington had been granted, who hastened to give such power up at the soonest opportunity.
After defeating the British—considered the greatest military force in the world—Washington held the singular approbation of an entire nation. He had risen to the pinnacle of political and military success, and, along the way, had been granted the full power by Congress to, for all intents and purposes, run the Army, the Navy, and the very Country as Commander-In-Chief. His mantle was one of absolute power and absolute affection. Such was Washington's power and authority that most of Europe assumed he would establish a new American monarchy. King George III himself commented that if Washington truly did resign his place of power, "He will be the greatest man in the world."
George Washington's ultimate declaration and action shocked the world, in some cases perhaps more than the defeat of Britain at the hands of her fledgling colonies. With the simple words, "I did not defeat King George III to become King George I," George Washington chose to voluntarily relinquish his commission, withdrew from public life, made no demand for political office (indeed, his only demand was to not be given political office), and quietly returned to his dear Martha, his beloved Mount Vernon, and resumed an unassuming and private life in Virginia.
When do we witness such character among men and women today? To the contrary, it sometimes seems nearly every public servant at every level of government in our modern nation carries themselves as would-be tyrants, their sole endeavor an endless quest to accumulate more and more power and authority.
Even those who seem possessed of some level of character nevertheless engage in the maneuverings of king-makers or king-seekers, always ready to accomplish that moment of pre-eminence when they will gladly lay down their principles and take up the mantle of assumed power and authority. Even movements, ostensibly made up of common citizens and built upon the traditional principles of this Republic, have abandoned the character Washington would espouse, contorting their reasoning in philosophical knots to justify diverging from a principled path to one assumed to lead to the power requisite to exact their will upon the nation.
It has become one of my firmest beliefs, that to accomplish a return to principled and free governance, we must encourage a return of principled and virtuous civic understanding. We the people, the common citizenry of this republic, must look to ourselves, to our lives, to our daily conduct, and consider the reality that the Congress, the Judiciary, the Executive, which we so often rail against in anger for their abuses and unfaithfulness, are no more than reflections of ourselves—of what we have become.
If we could, perhaps, engage upon a path of learning about those great ones who have come before who, despite their weaknesses and flaws, nevertheless rose above the pettiness of their natures and proved true to greater principles and virtues, enabling the birth of freedom we have inherited to this day, we might yet save this Great Experiment from extinction and ensure its safekeeping for our posterity. My humble prayer is that we can once more look to the examples of such men as George Washington, and reclaim the moral authority of a nation born for liberty and destined for greatness.
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in Political Philosophy and Public Law, American History, and Constitutional Studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley